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OK, we get it. The “new normal” we’re all talking about entails huge changes to residence halls and residential life. But, with or without COVID-19, the stark reality is that less than 15 percent of college students live on campuses. And their number is likely to shrink this fall as more students have to commute from home because of coronavirus-related family and financial issues or are forced into off-campus housing as a result of reducing dorm density.

Commuter students are defined as those who do not live in institution-owned housing on campuses. They make up more than 85 percent of today’s college students.

Their numbers include students of traditional age who live with their parents, those who live in rental housing near the campus, adults with full-time careers and parents living with their own children. Forty-one percent are 25 years of age or older, and 39 percent attend part-time. As many as 70 percent of full-time students work while enrolled in college, as do almost all part-time students. Those characteristics are more likely to apply to commuter students and, despite COVID-19’s disruptions, are also more likely to hold true in the upcoming academic year.

At this time when social inequality in general and racial inequality in particular are at the forefront of our national conscience, it is important to highlight the racial and ethnic diversity of commuter students, which has been steadily increasing as more students of color and first-generation students enroll in college. In addition, COVID-19 is likely to further increase the numbers and diversity of commuter students, including jobless students, military-connected students, homeless and couch-surfing students, delayed-entry students, and older students.

Although they have always been present on college campuses, commuter students continue to be viewed as “nontraditional.” They have been perpetually marginalized at institutions that have other students who live on the campus. This is true whether they are a small percentage of students at a predominantly residential, private liberal arts college or the vast majority at a large public university with 35,000 students.

Financial issues further complicate this picture. They are negatively affecting students now more than ever, derailing their educational goals, delaying their graduation and inducing a great deal of stress and worry. Colleges have always expected families to financially support their children while they attend college. But the reverse is happening now -- commuter students are supporting their parents, grandparents and siblings whose health and employment has been affected by COVID-19. Many students are searching for work they can’t find. Others are holding down two or even three minimum-wage jobs to try to make enough, and too many are working the graveyard shift because it pays more -- going from work straight to class without a night’s sleep. A significant fraction of students lack sufficient food or secure housing.

Key Considerations

So what does this all mean for those of us who have committed our careers to students at institutions with mixed resident-commuter populations? What it means is that we need to refocus some of our energy away from dorm beds and assigned showers to the crucial needs of our commuter students. And here’s the clincher: good stewardship and good teaching for commuter students benefit not only them but also all other students, as well.

Thus, some considerations worthy of our attention as we prepare to welcome students in person and online this fall are:

More and more colleges are creating emergency loan or grant programs. Such programs can make a huge difference in helping students over a sudden, one-time hurdle such as a health emergency, an unexpected loss of income, a death or other family crisis, or a risk of eviction due to delinquent rent payments. Where do the funds come from? Many colleges are including emergency support among their fundraising priorities and avidly seeking large and small donations. But emergency loans and other services for students with dire needs like food banks are only helpful if students know about them. In addition to prolific postings on social media, faculty members should include information about emergency assistance on their syllabi and mention this information in person and online as they go over other syllabus details.

Faculty members immersed in reimagining their courses for myriad in-person and online scenarios should keep commuter students in mind. Many professors are considering synchronous teaching via Zoom or a similar platform as the next best thing to meeting with students face-to-face. Synchronous classes can encourage interaction and a sense of community in the online environment. But the reality of most commuter students’ lives means that asynchronous courses provide them with the greatest access. Some students are sharing computers and bandwidth with multiple people; caring for children and younger siblings; and working inconsistent schedules in grocery stores, delivery services and hospitals. Being available during scheduled class times may no longer be possible for them.

“Financial issues” can be a euphemism for deeper mental and emotional problems. We need to be sure faculty and staff members are informed about all the potential signs of mental distress, as well as about resources for students who need support and assistance. Commuter and other students would benefit from campus counseling services online in addition to safely distanced in-person sessions. To meet overwhelming demand, colleges should consider adding services by online providers that work directly with counseling centers such as Therapist Assistance Online or Big White Wall.

Academic advising and guided pathways are more important now than ever. At times of crisis like today, commuter students confront more obstacles along the route to their degree. Guided pathways, with accompanying timely and intrusive advising, encourage students to make the “big choice” of their academic program as early as possible so that all the necessary courses are clearly laid out for them semester by semester. As a result, there are no wasted credits. Like a GPS in a car, guided pathways help students know their location along their chosen pathway in real time. Important motivation comes from a clear workforce connection of the pathway to high-demand jobs. Students enter programs of study with a good sense of the job opportunities that await them, including locations of jobs and salary expectations.

We must use technology wisely and creatively. Even asynchronous classes can foster collaborative work. Students can be placed or self-select into teams that organize their group meetings according to their own schedules. We can also offer online faculty conversations, tutoring and study groups. Faculty members can facilitate online “getting to know you” experiences in their classes. Some colleges have adopted apps that provide personalized, just-in-time notifications known as nudges through services like that allow advisers, faculty members and student affairs staff to notify students about assignments due, registration deadlines and online events. For example, a faculty member may send a message like, “Attached are the notes from today’s lecture. Use them to prepare for the quiz and message me with questions.” Such reminders are especially helpful for commuter students with multiple demands on their time and attention.

In conclusion, we need to look beyond the massive quantities of Plexiglas and sanitizer that we’re anxiously (and rightly) procuring in preparation for the fall semester. We are exercising extraordinary creativity to reinvent the living and dining experience for resident students. We also need to employ that creativity to serve and support commuter students both on and off our campuses.

What about food carts in parking lots or at bus stops where students can grab a prepackaged meal on their way to class without having to enter a dining hall? E-bikes and e-scooters to enable commuters to save valuable time getting to class? Platforms students can use to create their own online communities or clubs for peers in like majors, neighborhoods or family situations?

I have tried and tried to recall the name of the college president I heard speak at a conference many years ago who ended her talk with, “You have to care for the students that you’ve got.” While I unfortunately still haven’t been able to recall it, her words will always resonate with me. We need to think long and hard about who our students actually are and how we can enhance success for all of them in the new academic year.

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