Saturday, November 05, 2016

Choosing the commuter school

From whatever age I first started thinking about colleges, I assumed that I would attend a residential one. That's what a real college was.

I don't know where I got this idea. My parents were first-generation college students, and though my mother did live in the dorms--she grew up in the middle of the desert, so residency was the only option--my father lived at home and commuted to the local Cal State. Almost none of my aunts and uncles had a traditional residential experience, either; when I was a child, some of them were either returning to college or still finishing up their long-deferred degrees.

Still, I imagine my parents' upward mobility had something to do with my assumptions, as did the larger milieu of my peers: I knew of people who lived at home while commuting to the U.W. (about a 30-minute drive, if traffic was good), but everyone I was friends with lived on or near campus. We all went away to college, even if "away" just meant across the bridge to Seattle.

The only person I remember explicitly touting the benefits of residential education was my beloved high school English teacher, who mentioned it in the context of the monomyth, or hero's journey. As I recall, while describing the importance of departure to the hero's growth and initiation, she mentioned that--ideally--college provided a modern equivalent, and that's why it was better to go away if one could: to get full separation from one's origins and focus exclusively on intellectual and personal growth.

I did my Ph.D. where I went to college, a place where "living off campus" was presented as undermining the very foundations of undergraduate life--even though it usually meant living a couple of blocks away, in a university-owned apartment building. But since getting my degree I've taught exclusively at public colleges and universities with plenty of commuter students; at my current job, they're the majority. And I love those students and the energy they bring: it turns out that just as I prefer living in a city, I enjoy teaching in one. Students don't show up to my classes in pyjamas; they're more likely to show up in a uniform or work clothes. They have a focus, drive, and sense of responsibility that's not quite the same as, but not really so different from, what I experienced with students at my more elite alma mater.

I like my job and I've never specifically wanted to teach at a more residential institution. Still, I guess a tiny corner of my brain has continued to assume that, on balance, a residential college experience was better for students. So over the years I've considered it good news when I learned that my employer was building more campus housing, or that a larger percentage of the student body was residential, or whatever.

Lately, though, I've been wondering. Because I see a lot of transfer students, I hear bits and pieces about why they transferred and where else they attended. And in recent years, I've had several students mention, specifically, how much they disliked living on campus at this or that big state university or small private college. Some criticize the party or sports culture, or a remote location; others describe the homogeneity of the student population, or the fact that their peers seemed lazy or bored or entitled. More than one student seemed surprised that no one seemed to work or even want a job.

And this is something that we kinda know about residential college life, but don't always acknowledge: the culture of a place can be toxic or just a bad fit, and when you're in an enclosed, self-contained space--whether it's a small liberal arts college or a big land-grant university--it can be hard to escape the local mores or to find your people. (I'm reminded of a recent book arguing that first-generation college students often have worse educational outcomes at moderately-selective schools than less-selective ones.) But I wonder whether it's not just that some residential colleges foster bad peer-group behavior or are a bad fit for particular students. To say that would still be to imply that, when done right, the residential experience is always better.

Increasingly, I'm not so sure. I'm beginning to suspect that there may be personality types that prefer a college experience that is enmeshed within a fuller, larger life. I'm struck, for example, by the number of students I have--and I mean traditionally college-aged students, without dependents--who not only work multiple jobs but are also double-majoring or carrying multiple minors and who say, cheerfully, that they prefer to be busy. If I'd only heard this once or twice, I'd have assumed that my students were just putting a good face on necessity; I've certainly seen students suffer when they have too many responsibilities or a work schedule that's out of their control. But after hearing it enough, and from students who are successful rather than struggling, I think it's worth taking them seriously.

My students have initiative in spades. Some of them are here because they wanted to get the hell out of a rural or suburban community; they moved downtown, found apartments and jobs, and got themselves enrolled--with varying degrees of parental involvement. At least two of my current students moved here alone from out of state. Even those living with their parents are often more independent than their peers at residential campuses: they have jobs, pay many of their own bills, and can navigate a major city, nevermind an exasperating institutional bureaucracy, on their own.

One can see all these things as compensatory benefits: as the upside of not being "able" not to work or not to live at home. But what if we saw them as goods in themselves? What if we saw commuter schools not as fallbacks, or as the best options under certain circumstances, but as actively attractive to a busy, energetic, can-do student population?

Most of us believe that our students are our institution's greatest asset. Maybe their choices tell us how we should value ourselves, too.


Janice said...

So many of our students can't afford residential college and we're talking Canadian tuition rates, so I really can't fathom what it's like with American tuition rates. As you say, so many students are juggling jobs and other family responsibilities on top of their full-time courseloads. It's a different hero's journey!

Fretful Porpentine said...

It's an interesting question. I'm inclined to see my university's current push for more-students-on-campus as a good thing, because a lot of our commuter students seem disconnected from the institution -- they don't have friends here, don't participate in anything other than class, and in some cases they're perpetually late for class because they're commuting two hours from another part of the state. But, on the other hand, dorm life here entails a level of in loco parentis that feels like a throwback to another era, and I'm not sure it does much to encourage students to act and think like independent adults.

Contingent Cassandra said...

We're no longer a commuter school as of a few years ago, when we reached the threshold of students living in dorms to be considered residential (it's pretty low -- 26% if memory serves; I think that's a Carnegie metric, but I'm not sure). But a good many of our students who live on campus work off campus, so we're not exactly a traditional residential school (we're also a very high cost of living/high rent area, as well as an area with a high employment/low unemployment rate, which probably plays a role in all of the above). I'm not sure whether that's good or bad, but I tend to prefer working students -- or at least those who are working a reasonable number of hours, because they're generally more disciplined and focused. The counterbalancing issue is that many are working too many hours, and hours that are too unpredictable (thanks to current approaches to shift scheduling in the retail/service sector), for them to get the most out of the educations they're working so hard to pay for. I'm not sure where the happy medium is, but I don't perceive on- vs. off-campus housing as a major part of the picture (at least unless and until a student becomes housing-insecure, which does happen, and can really play havoc with a semester, especially for a student who's already on the edge).

heu mihi said...

This isn't really a residential/non-residential issue, but I do worry a little bit about the "I prefer to be busy" mentality. I've had plenty of students who said this, and who were very bright and active and busy (with jobs, extra-curriculars, multiple majors and minors [which do not necessarily translated into better job prospects, but can accord bragging rights], etc.)--and who totally burned out, or who decided that writing an honors thesis was less important than all of their sorority involvement and/or working extra shifts at their jobs, or who were simply incapable of sitting still and being reflective (which should, ideally, be a part of the college experience--even if that reflection takes place on the bus going back and forth to campus!).

There's a glorification of busyness in our culture (from which I am definitely not immune) that I think can be very damaging. At the risk of sounding a little kids-these-days-ish, I'm pretty sure that cell phones et alia play a big part in this. When we never have to be alone, when we never have to *stop*, it's pretty tempting to valorize busyness for its own sake and see our self-worth as caught up in how stressed and sleep-deprived we are.

This is not at all to argue with your main points in this post. And I know that such busyness is necessary for a lot of students--I'm talking more about those students who take on more than they need to, or than is really benefiting them, for the sake of being busy or because they take pride in how much they can do; I know that I have been guilty of this myself!

In the end, I'm skeptical about people who say that they prefer to be busy in the same way that I'm skeptical of people who claim to do their best work under extreme time pressure. They've found a way to make this work, but is it sustainable? Is it contributing to their *best* work?

Flavia said...

Hi all, and thanks for these thoughtful comments.

Like Cassandra, I've come increasingly to feel that living on campus isn't really the big issue here--the bigger issue is how many other demands a student has on her time, and whether she can truly focus on being a full-time student. (And some definitions of "on-campus" are just stupid, as they were at my alma mater: if you live within walking distance, especially, you're basically on campus!)

But I take Fretful's critique, and I was a lot more interested in seeing the number of on-campus students rise at my previous institution, which was commute-able from two major cities (and their suburbs), but which was itself a large, self-contained, grassy campus adjacent to a small village. That is, the campus felt residential, and so I think I had more cognitive dissonance with the idea of students commuting there. It also seemed to be the case that there was a real divide between the growing on-campus population and the still very significant commuter population. They just seemed to have two different experiences of the institution, or that at least was my perception. Some got all the extracurriculars, the social life, etc., and some seemed just to get the classes and I worried they didn't feel connected to the institution and weren't forming bonds with their peers. Now, though, I'm at a downtown campus right off several major public transportation lines, and even those students who live on campus tend to have at least part-time jobs and families nearby, so the distinction between "on-campus" and commuting students seems somewhat trivial. They're much more alike than different.

I also became more aware, at my previous job, of the ways the the residential experience could be challenging for students who had no choice--which is to say, students recruited from downstate (NYC and environs)--and who suddenly found themselves plunked down 5-6 hours from home in a small village in a rural area it was virtually impossible to escape without a car. Minority students especially (but not only) could have a lot of culture shock. And the increase in the residential population had some downsides for everyone, in the form of more drinking, occasional game-day hooliganism, and that kind of thing. (I'm not prepared to say it's been bad overall, just that the picture is mixed.)

So part of what I'm wondering in this post is whether we over-value the social aspects of college, or--for those of us who went to elite residential institutions--whether we extrapolate too much from our own experiences. I certainly made most of my best friends in college, am still in touch with almost all of them, and I learned a tremendous amount outside of the classroom. But this is far from true for everyone.

So I want to consider the possibility that it's okay for college to be a purely intellectual space, and that maybe that's even what some students want. This is not saying that college is irrelevant to their rest of their lives or is neatly cordoned off, but that it can actually still be that valued space apart that my H.S. English teacher described--even if students are entering and leaving it every day rather than residing there 24/7.

Flavia said...

And Heu Mihi:

I don't disagree, at all. Indeed, one of the toughest things about this semester for me has been how scheduled and disciplined I have to be about everything, how little time I have just to think, and how cranky that makes me.

Even taking the time to write this blog post felt like a luxury--and though I think it was really a needed one, it still put me half a day behind in grading & I was a mess for the rest of the weekend!

Jeff said...

With regard to overestimating the social value of colleges: I can't say I found my own residential experience all that useful. People I now know who went to, say, Yale or Cambridge clearly had formative experiences, immersed as they were in campus cultures and college traditions that evolved to inculcate belonging, purpose, and pride that would all extend long past graduation and connect them for the rest of their lives.

I went to a big state school. While I made wonderful lifelong friends, almost none of them went into "prestige" fields or the fields I eventually went into, academia and publishing. My college roommate, for example, is a police officer. Our alumni magazine finds plenty of exceptional graduates to highlight, but most of the news is merely nice: someone here has become human resources manager at a corporation with an office in suburban New Jersey; someone over there has opened a frozen yogurt franchise in Wilmington. It's great, but it's all largely an extension of the world I grew up in in the first place.

What I saw in my dorms were lots of people who didn't give a damn about college, cheated on schoolwork whenever they could, drank themselves into oblivion, and had sex with strangers every weekend. I dealt every day with frat-boy neighbors who tried to get me to study less and drink more. (I grew up among alcoholics, so that wasn't gonna happen.) I saw people destroy their brains with drugs. I had a neighbor who repeatedly stole from me. I had a friend who had to deal with overnight visits by her roommate's white-supremacist boyfriend. Over four years, nearly everyone I knew dropped out, flunked out, or vanished, some of them so thoroughly that I can find no trace of them on the Internet.

I hate to sound so grim! I had my share of fun in college, too, and forged a few lasting friendships, but living on campus didn't immerse me in an intellectual community, help me build social capital, or teach me anything about human nature I didn't already know. Maybe my experience is an extreme outlier, and I'm open to the possibility that there are places where the elite college residential experience scales down successfully, but when I read your descriptions of your commuter students, I picture kids who know what they're missing, and don't mind.

Flavia said...


Your experience sounds much like that of people I know who also went to big state schools. Most of them had a perfectly nice experience, at least after finding their niche, but college doesn't seem central to their sense of identity in the way that it was for me--and those who went on to grad or professional school are much more likely to identify those as the places where they really met their people, their most significant friends, and became the people they are today. Even my H.S. friends/acquaintances who didn't go on to additional education don't seem to have made their most enduring friends in college (off hand, I can't think of any who married people they met there). Their pre- and post-college friends seem by far the more significant ones.

So yes, I think a lot of my students have meaningful lives elsewhere, and ones that may in fact be more conducive to learning for its own sake than residential education sometimes is. (And it's not like their learning is siloed off from the rest of their life: students are always mentioning talking to their parents or boy/girlfriends about what they're reading, and when I recently took my students to the art museum a couple left talking about how they were going to come back and bring a friend, sibling, or significant other.)

Jeff said...

Hi, Flavia! For what it's worth, I think this phenomenon has a class dimension about it. I laugh when I think back to 1988, my senior year of high school, and recall just how howlingly ignorant I was of social capital. Smart, ambitious classmates threatened to burst into tears if they didn't get into such-and-such college, and I was baffled: What, I wondered, was the difference between the University of Delaware and Princeton but architecture and location? Only after college did I make friends who went to Yale, Harvard, Wellesley, Williams, Dartmouth, Oxbridge, et al., and I was amazed, and sometimes envious, of the comprehensive experience they shared. After 21 years in D.C., I learned to fake my way through that cultural sphere, but the sense of being outside of it has been hard to articulate.

Speaking again as someone who used to be like your students, I'm so glad you take them to the art museum! As weird as it may sound, I didn't set foot in an art museum until I was 21 years old. I don't doubt that for some of them, a museum visit will be life-changing.