Recognizing Off-Campus and Commuter Students: Part 1

By Shane LeBlanc and Isaac Gray

Increasing and improving student engagement has become a central focus of most post-secondary institutions in Canada. The reasons for the focus is obvious. Student engagement has been linked to higher retention, to greater academic success and to a more fulfilling college/university experience for students(CUSC 2014). Yet many Canadian institutions have struggled to engage off-campus and commuter students (OCCS). A myriad of logistical and socioeconomic factors make it harder for OCCS to connect with student life, to gain access to services and to participate in co-curricular programming. Further, many institutions focus their foundational student engagement programming on students that live-in residence. Yet, it might surprise some to hear that 60% of first year, and 97% of final year students live off-campus(CUSC 2016 & 2015). With a population of this size it is important that institutions gain a better understanding of this group and create initiatives that take their needs into consideration.

Surprisingly, OCCS are underrepresented in research in spite of the fact that they constitute the majority of student population. This is likely due to a combination of several factors, institutions may choose to focus on other student groups, or the fact that these students don’t personally identify as commuter students (Thomas & Jones, 2017). Further, there is no common lens to view OCCS students and they are often defined, grouped, and divided based on other criteria (age, distance education, distance from institution, and mode of transportation), while others do not choose to analyze their OCCS population (Slade, 1991; Thomas and Jones, 2017). Off-campus and commuter students are as diverse as any group of students in the Canadian experience. As any diverse group in post-secondary, each student will have challenges, goals, and experiences that are unique to their person, and some that they share with others. When focusing on OCCS engagement, it is important to design initiatives that focus on individual or group needs/interests.

It is important to gain a better understanding of OCCS because they can experience unique challenges, and many have a different experience from what is considered the typical university experience. Many of these challenges arise from the practical challenges that come with commuting. Students report that commuting can be more difficult than initially thought stating that it can be tiring, expensive, and stressful (Thomas & Jones, 2017). The mental, physical, and financial burden of commuting can be very overwhelming for students. In a 2001 study it was estimated that the typical household spends approximately 20% of its income on driving costs (EPA). Studies have also shown that commuting can have negative effects on health, mood, and family life while also increasing anxiety and effecting cognitive performance (Novaco, Stkols and Milanesi, 1990; and Koslowsky, 1995). To see more information on OCCS see our infographic below.

Considering the challenges that OCCS face it is not a surprise that they have been found to have less successful university and college experiences and to less naturally integrate into the campus community (Tinto, 1997 & 2000), have higher risk of attrition and less connection to the institution (Noel, et al., 1985). It has also been found that commuting negatively impacts degree attainment (Astin, et al., 2001). By better understanding this group and addressing the barriers they face we can better serve this population of students and hopefully in turn improve their success and retention. Strategies for alleviating the barriers OCCS face will be explored in the next AACUSS Talks.

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Novaco, R. W, Stokols, D. and Milanesi, L. C. (1990), Subjective and Objective Dimensions of Travel Impedance as Determinants of Commuting Stress, American Journal of Community Psychology 18, 231-257.

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Tinto, V. (2000). Looking at the university through different lenses. About Campus, 4(6), 2 - 3.

Thomas, L. & Jones, R (2017). Student Engagement in the Context of Commuter Students. London: The Student Engagement Partnership.