Student Engagement: A Closer Look at Commuters

Student Engagement: A Closer Look at Commuters

Paul Shepherd

Paul Shepherd, Director of Student Involvement, University of Wisconsin - River Falls

Higher education scholar George Kuh and a number of his colleagues have created a wealth of knowledge regarding how college student engagement, both academically and socially, contributes positively to academic performance and persistence to graduation. Just today, I had an opportunity to speak with a group of parents and family members of new students starting our university this spring. As I spoke to them about the importance of involvement on campus and how getting involved in just one experience can make a tremendous difference, I got a question from a parent who seemed concerned.

“My student is commuting from home, can they still get involved on campus?”

Like any good student affairs professional, I quickly said, ABSOLUTELY and provided a variety of examples of how commuting students I know have gotten involved at our university. After returning to my office, the question from the parent still stuck in my head, so I took a few moments to consider another question.

Student engagement opportunities may be available for commuting students, but are they as accessible as they could be for them? Now that is a question more difficult to answer, but one that is critical in order to maximize student engagement on our campuses.

In a recent survey we conducted on our campus, students who chose not to become involved in any involvement experience this past semester cited “commuting from home” as a primary reason they decided not to engage. Despite opportunities being available to commuting students, the evidence we gathered suggested many commuting students may feel involvement experiences aren’t for them.

In my pondering, I have come to the conclusion the problem of inaccessible engagement opportunities for commuting students is more than just a perception issue. Perception among commuting students that involvement isn’t for them is a huge problem, but there is good reason for them to feel that way. Many of our historic offerings occur at inconvenient times and the connections we help foster among students living on campus so they attend events together aren’t necessarily fostered among commuting students unless there are professionals specifically tasked with creating programs for them.

For those at institutions without professional staff dedicated to working with commuting students, here are three things I believe student engagement professionals should consider in order to send a clear message that involvement on campus is for commuting students.

1. Switch up the time frame of events and opportunities: We have a long history of doing events at night and on the weekends which works well for residential students, but presents barriers for commuting students. Many commuting students need to plan far in advance to be able to return to campus at night to attend an event. Providing engagement experiences that typically happen at night during the day may provide commuting students an opportunity to engage between classes while they have some “down time”.

2. Leverage technology: Involvement in student organizations is the most popular engagement opportunity at our university. Almost every one of our student organizations hold their meetings in the evening hours making it difficult for commuting students to attend on a regular basis. Recently, our office has begun to talk intentionally with student organization leaders about the accessibility of their organization to different student populations. Perhaps the evening is the most convenient time for an officer or full organization meeting for a particular organization, but by using OrgSync, much of the meeting business could be chronicled online and commuting students who are unable to join in person could contribute by using the myriad of tools available. Perhaps some will think engaging virtually in student organizations isn’t as good as in-person; however, given the choice of engaging online vs. not at all, it is well worth the paradigm shift and effort to provide engagement opportunities online using tools like OrgSync.

3. Provide resources: A number of barriers beyond a lack of time may prevent high levels of engagement among commuting students. As student affairs educators, conducting assessment to learn about these barriers could provide insight into resources or services that could be offered to reduce or eliminate the barriers to engagement. Questions about the availability of parking on campus at night may be a significant barrier preventing commuting students from driving back to attend an event or meeting. Programs designed to organize ride sharing or introducing students who are commuting from the same general area may provide the connections that would increase the odds of commuting students returning to campus. For commuting students who have children, offering free child care may be a significant “game changer” making the difference in whether a commuting student can attend an activity or event.

Asking commuting students what (if anything) can be done to help make participating easier for them is an important first step toward understanding the population of commuting students at your institution. As student affairs educators, we must do all that we can to understand the unique needs of the commuting student population and turn our attention toward reducing and eliminating barriers preventing the type of engagement critical to persistence and personal growth.

This post is part of a series on Student Engagement. Read all posts in this series, here.

About the Author: Paul Shepherd currently serves as the Director of Student Involvement at the University of Wisconsin – River Falls where he is responsible for a diverse array of student engagement opportunities including leadership, student organizations, service/volunteerism, student governance, and campus events. Paul has served the student affairs profession for 13 years and is passionate about student learning and development through intentional co-curricular programming. Paul is currently pursuing a Doctor of Educational Leadership degree and is interested in researching student engagement and persistence to graduation among multicultural, first generation, and low income college students. Paul has served as a presenter, consultant, and speaker in the areas of leadership development, student engagement, bystander intervention, and learning outcomes based assessment. In his spare time, Paul enjoys spending time with his family and blogging at Renewing Leadership. Paul also loves engaging with colleagues and students via Twitter! Follow Paul @pshepRF.

Paul Shepherd

Paul Shepherd, Director of Student Involvement, University of Wisconsin - River Falls