Advising a Special Population: Commuter Students at Ohio University

Laura Chapman, Lora Munsell, and Jennifer Caldwell, Ohio University

Going to college is a difficult transition for many students. It is a time when a student experiences new challenges and, occasionally, some obstacles as he or she prepares for a possible career or further education. During this transitional period, what happens during the first few quarters or semesters is important. It can determine whether or not a student succeeds or fails. While this transition is important for residential students, it is equally important for commuter students because commuter students lack the institutional supports of resident advisers and assistants to help guide them during their first year. At Ohio University, we have found that commuting students have different needs from our residential students. For this reason we have pinpointed some academic advising issues affecting commuters and have developed programs to help meet this population's needs.

Academic Advising Issues

Surveying our commuter students, we realized that the commuters at Ohio University have several unifying characteristics. Please note that these characteristics are not true for all commuters but, in general, each commuter at one time or another has encountered one or more of these issues. Many of the commuter students at Ohio University are first-generation college students. For some students, this translates into a lack of family and peer support, scarce resources at home (dictionaries, computers, money, etc.), and limited knowledge about college and the expectations associated with higher learning. Often, these factors are unintentional because the student and his or her family are unaware of what is necessary for academic success. In some instances, families do not realize the pressures of college life. They expect the student to do well in school, but do not understand what is necessary to see this expectation fulfilled.

Commuter students have family responsibilities not experienced by residential students. We found that many commuter students maintain the role(s) they had prior to college. If the student cared for siblings, cooked meals, cleaned the home, or helped on the family farm, the expectation is that these responsibilities will continue. For some students, juggling school and home life becomes difficult because of the extra preparation needed for college course work and/or added responsibilities at home.

Many commuter students finance their college education on their own. Typically, this involves the student working a part-time job outside the university. Students employed through the university can work a maximum of 20 hours per week; however, commuters, who usually work off campus, often work as many as 25 to 30 hours per week. Such workloads limit a student's studying time and his or her participation in campus activities. Some commuter students maintain such a work schedule and are active at home, and in the process severely limit their opportunities to meet with professors, study, work on group projects, and get additional help.

Traveling to and from campus is another issue an adviser needs to be aware of when working with commuter students. Commuter students experience the same problems of getting to class every day as advisers do. Many advisers assume the student resides in the residence halls and often overlook this fact. Understanding that commuters encounter obstacles, such as lack of parking, inclement weather, and car problems, builds a relationship with the student and provides the student with a resource on campus to consult when he or she is experiencing some of the hassles of being a commuter.

Finally, while working with commuter students at Ohio University, we learned that many were not academically prepared for college-level work. For example, some of the students enrolled do not know how to take notes from a lecture or are unable to read at a college level. Commuter students often find themselves playing “catch-up” with their peers, which intensifies their isolation on campus and often holds them back academically.

There are other advising issues related to commuter students; however, the issues discussed are the most prevalent for commuters at Ohio University. These guided the development of our programs to ease commuters' transition to college and give them resources to ensure academic success.

Our Program

Beginning in 1993, the academic counselors in the university's University College began looking at the commuter student population. The counselors realized several things in this process. First, student services offices often overlooked the constraints of many first-year commuter students. Second, many commuter students were either dismissed or withdrew from the university within their first few quarters. Their retention rate after one year of college approached 60 percent compared to 85 percent for residential students. These two issues motivated counselors in University College to find ways to help commuters both stay in school and do well.

In 1993, a survey given to first-year commuter students identified some of their needs. This survey indicated many of the advising issues discussed earlier: commuter students juggle school, work, and family and are not involved in campus activities. The average commuter student drives between forty and fifty miles a day, does not go home during the day, works off-campus, and has a poor high school background. Generally they commute because of financial reasons and are the first in their families to attend college. The commuter students surveyed complained about the lack of places to go between classes and often feeling “left out” while on campus. These results are consistent with the literature concerning commuter students and current commuters at Ohio University (Jacoby, 1989). To address some of these needs, University College formed Commuter Student Services.

Commuter Student Services' first endeavor was to publish a quarterly newsletter, which contains articles relating to the lives of commuter students and informs them of activities on campus. In the newsletter, students find stories about parking and the computer labs, and tips on how to make commuting easier, such as ways to manage school and work. During the 1999-2001 school year, the newsletter will be bi-quarterly to increase the contact between the university and commuter students. A newsletter mailed to incoming commuter students during the summer addresses many of the questions they may have concerning parking, accessing e-mail, services on campus, and commuting in general.

To further connect commuters to campus, Commuter Student Services instituted the Commuter Mentor Program in 1996. Every first-year commuter student enrolled at the university has a commuter mentor, who is an upper-class student. The purpose of the mentor is to be a friend to new commuters. Mentors help students plan their schedules, teach mentees basic time management skills, check on them once a week via e-mail or phone, help students find academic assistance if needed, and plan programs to encourage commuter students to get involved in campus life and activities.

A section of the University Experience, a course to help first-quarter college students adjust to college, is offered specifically for commuter students. Prior to the addition of the special commuter section, commuter students enrolled in the University Experience course discussed issues that did not relate to them, such as roommates and how to deal with being homesick. Commuter students now discuss some of the same topics as the residential students (time management, how to study effectively, etc.) and also cover the issues helpful to them specifically. The course instructor modified the commuter section to better meet the needs of the students. For example, in the time management section of the course, students look at ways to balance school, work, and family. Throughout the quarter, students discuss how to make non-commuter friends, where to find places to study, what to do if they miss a class because of a family obligation, and how to make good, balanced schedules. They also learn ways to receive academic help if necessary and the importance of developing relationships with their professors so that they will better understand the commuter's situation.

Results

In the few years the program has been operating, other university offices have tried to make their services “commuter friendly.” The student center was made more appealing to commuter students by offering lockers on a quarterly, rather than daily, rental basis and encouraging commuters to come to the building to study, check e-mail, or eat lunch.

In another survey, conducted in the spring of 1998, we learned that the program is making a difference. The commuter students surveyed reported that they do read the newsletter and find it helpful. They find their mentors helpful and are pleased university personnel realize that it is difficult to commute to a residential campus.

Students who take full advantage of the program appear to have an easier time than those who do not. Students who request help only when they need it also appear to benefit. With the assistance of the program, students are able to receive the extra academic help they need, such as reading and math tutors and information on supplemental instruction sessions. The program allows commuter students to meet other students who are experiencing the same problems they are experiencing and helps eliminate the feeling of isolation many commuters have described. Grades of the students involved in the program improve as their college careers continue.

By targeting the issues we found concerning commuter students at Ohio University, we feel we have begun to take the steps necessary to meet our goals in advising commuter students: helping them stay in school and achieve academic success.

References

Jacoby, B. (1989). The Student as Commuter: Developing a Comprehensive Institutional Response (Report No. 7). Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse on Higher Education.
Lora Munsell is an academic counselor at Ohio University. She can be reached at munsell@oak.cats.ohiou.edu. Laura Chapman is an academic counselor and Jennifer Caldwell is a peer mentor also at Ohio University.

Published in The Mentor on August 4, 1999, by Penn State's Division of Undergraduate Studies
Available online at dus.psu.edu/mentor
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