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Won’t you stay, just a little bit longer …

Big-city universities try new strategies to keep commuter students on campus, so they'll do better academically


On a typical weekday, students enrolled at the University of Toronto Mississauga are arriving at their spacious suburban campus, some 30 kilometres west of downtown Toronto, in a thin stream, mainly by car or city bus. Most of the campus’s 10,500 students come from the sprawling 905 belt in the Greater Toronto Area, and almost 90 percent commute to and from campus each day.

The situation is much the same at many universities across Canada, particularly at large urban institutions. But there may be no commuting situation more pronounced than in Toronto, where the city’s universities are already brimming to capacity with one of the most diverse student populations in the country, and where the climb in enrolment is expected to last for the foreseeable future.

It’s not just the crowded campus scene that bothers Toronto’s commuter students. It’s the daily commute too. Battling the city’s congested highways and crowded subways can add hours to a day, even in good weather.

It should come as no surprise, then, that commuter students spend less time participating in extra-curricular activities than their fellow students who live in residence.

“The overwhelming philosophy of many of our commuters is to get in, get the education and get out,” says Frank Cappadocia, York University’s director of the Centre for Student Community and Leadership Development. “Unfortunately, that’s a challenge that all large urban universities like York face.”

The consequences are challenging indeed. Research shows that commuters tend to be less satisfied with their university experience and more likely to drop out. Results from the annual National Survey of Student Engagement, or NSSE (pronounced Nessie), show that universities with a large number of commuter students score lower on measures of student engagement. These students tend to take part in fewer co-curricular and extra-curricular events, join fewer campus clubs and report spending less time with faculty outside the classroom.

“Not living on a residential campus definitely seems to depress a student’s engagement, particularly outside the classroom,” says Jillian Kinzie, associate director of the Center for Postsecondary Research at Indiana University Bloomington, where the NSSE is conducted.

And that’s cause for concern because, as she explains, research shows that co-curricular and extra-curricular activities help foster students’ leadership and learning abilities and improve their chances of academic success.

Toronto’s universities are grappling to find ways to reach out to commuter students and improve their chances of succeeding. They’re providing tidy, well-appointed student lounges and more opportunities for small-group learning, and many things in between.

University of Toronto has made its number one priority enhancing the student experience. Jonathan Freedman, U of T’s vice-provost, student life, estimates that about 85 percent of U of T’s 72,000 students commute to its three campuses – Mississauga to the west, Scarborough to the east and the main St. George campus in the centre. The percentage is even higher at Mississauga and Scarborough. Of course, a significant number of these students, particularly at St. George, can easily walk to campus, and for the most part, he says, they make out fine.

That still leaves an important share of commuters in danger of slipping through the cracks. Some of these students may have part-time jobs or family responsibilities that keep them away from campus, suggests Dr. Freedman.

“Their relationship with the university is primarily to come here and get a degree. They didn’t come here for the extra-curricular or co-curricular [activities]. They didn’t come here to make a lot of friends and be involved in a lot of activities,” he adds. “But we think they will get more out of their academic education if they are also involved with the university as a whole.”

In the fall of 2005, the faculty of arts and science at St. George introduced the First-Year Learning Communities, or FLC (pronounced flick) program for first-year life science students who commute. Corey Goldman, FLC program director and senior lecturer in U of T’s department of ecology and evolutionary biology, says he launched the program because the first-year life science classes are large, often more than 1,000 students. If you are commuting, he says, “it’s more of a challenge to meet other people in those classes.”

Students who voluntarily sign up for the program are placed in groups of about 24. They’re enrolled as a group in the same biology, chemistry and math classes and in the same labs and tutorials. They meet regularly on a social basis to take part in anything from dodge-ball games to tutorials on how to write exams.

The program has been a runaway success. In surveys, FLC participants reported being more connected to U of T than their peers who didn’t participate in the program and equal to those who lived in residence. Of the three groups, FLC participants reported the highest levels of satisfaction with their university experience. And they scored higher grades even though the program didn’t intentionally set out to provide academic support, Mr. Goldman notes.

The program has since expanded to include students in commerce, computer science, economics and philosophy, although in these programs participation isn’t restricted to commuters because of the relatively few students involved. There are plans to expand the program further.

Some of U of T’s colleges, including Trinity and Victoria, run similar first-year seminars. Victoria also holds orientation sessions specifically for first-year commuters, and the Victoria Off-Campus Association offers events and activities for them throughout the year. U of T Mississauga introduced this fall a small-group program, utmONE, for first-year, commuting commerce and management students. For the first term, participants attended weekly seminars. In the second term they’re working on a “capstone project,” a culminating, team-research initiative.

“The idea is that this capstone will serve as a bit of launching pad for them to continue to nurture their relationships beyond this program,” says Chris McGrath, UTM assistant dean, student affairs. “We’re hoping it forms a really good solid foundation for them to have lasting academic and interpersonal relationships with one another because that, I think, is the biggest challenge for commuter students – finding a sense of place, a sense of belonging, a sense of friendship.”

This year 100 students participated in utmONE, and Mr. McGrath hopes that within four or five years all first-year students will take part. To encourage more time on campus, the university is also experimenting with changes to student schedules by spreading out first-year classes from Monday through Friday, rather than concentrating them in three- or four-day blocks. And it’s trying to organize more programs and activities to fill those timetable gaps.

The NSSE’s Dr. Kinzie says that setting up learning communities, like FLC and utmONE, is one of the best methods for enhancing the learning experience of commuter students because it replicates the benefits of residence living.

“When they are designed well they can be even more beneficial than living in residence” because they encourage students to form study groups, she says. Then if they encounter difficulties with their school work they have someone to turn to for help, rather than struggle through on their own. There’s no need to limit the participation in learning communities to commuters for them to be effective, she adds. All students can benefit, but commuters perhaps more than others.

Megan Miller, a third-year social work student at Ryerson University, knows first-hand about the benefits of living in residence and the challenges that commuters face. Before transferring to Ryerson, Ms. Miller lived in a campus dorm at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.

“I’ve seen both sides,” she says. “Living in residence, the friendships I made were all based on communal living.” She made few friends in the classroom. Landing in a new city, particularly one as large as Toronto “can be a little overwhelming,” she adds. And living off campus as she does now can make it that much harder to make friends.

Located in the heart of downtown Toronto, Ryerson has one of the lowest proportions of first-year students living in residence in the province, mainly because of the city’s high cost of urban real estate, says Glen Weppler, Ryerson’s manager of student housing services. More than 90 percent of Ryerson students commute from across the GTA, some for more than an hour.

This past fall, Ryerson launched the Ryerson Off-campus Living Link, or ROLL, a mentor-type program closely modelled on the role of a residence adviser. Ryerson hired three third-year students, including Ms. Miller, to act as advisers to first-year students who live off campus. The ROLLs, as these student advisers are dubbed, organize events and social functions, answer questions and act as a general resource to connect students with campus clubs, much like an RA does for students in residence.

“In essence, Ryerson is reaching its hand out into the community to help students where they are,” says Mr. Weppler, who oversees the program.

The response so far has been lukewarm. Mr. Weppler thinks that’s partly because the program was late getting off the ground. Dispersed over a large geographic area, off-campus students are harder to reach, and marketing efforts have to be more creative than just posting signs around campus, he adds. “Certainly we’ve encountered some barriers but we are starting to make some adjustments.”

The ROLLs plan to organize weekly luncheons at the campus pub and other neighbourhood get-togethers soon. Come next year, Mr. Weppler hopes to have 12 ROLLs in place at the start of orientation week and eventually to have enough to fan out across the GTA. One possibility being considered is instituting a common hour as part of students’ schedules – a class-free time that would give clubs a chance to meet during the day. Ryerson recently purchased several downtown properties as a site for a new Student Learning Centre and other much-needed study spaces.

Meanwhile, at York University in Toronto’s north end, university officials are focusing efforts on improving communication strategies to promote student events using Facebook, the social-networking site popular with students, among other tools. York just finished expanding and refurbishing its student lounges to give commuter students a place to go between classes. When organizing events, York tries to hold them in open accessible spaces where students naturally congregate. And the university is trying to increase the number of on-campus jobs, so that fewer students need to leave campus to earn money, says Mr. Cappadocia, York’s student community director.

He says that more and more it can be shown that “academic success is closely linked to students’ co-curricular activities.” He uses this argument in particular to win over students who are doing well academically and who say, “I’m interested in grad school and I don’t have time to attend other events.”

“We can show them the research [proving that] students who get the flavour of what is going on” on campus do better in their studies and after. As Mr. Cappadocia sees it, his goal is to entice students to attend an event – any event – because if they attend one, they’re more likely to attend others. And that, he says, makes for a happier and ultimately more successful student.

Move from lectures to collaborative learning
by Harriet Eisenkraft

If universities hope to improve the learning experience of commuter students, they should focus their efforts on improving the one place these students are sure to be found – the classroom, said Vincent Tinto, a renowned scholar of higher education.

Citing results of a five-year research project that he co-directed for the U.S.-based Lumina Foundation for Education, Dr. Tinto said that for most commuter students, “the classroom is almost always the only place they’re on campus and the only place they meet their peers and engage with the faculty.”

The distinguished professor and chair of the higher education program at Syracuse University spoke at the opening of the Centre for the Study of Students in Postsecondary Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at U of T.

Commuters make up most postsecondary students in North America, said Dr. Tinto.

The researchers followed students in 19 American colleges, six of them four-year institutions. The research focused on learning strategies for low-income and under-prepared students, almost all of whom live off campus. Many of these students, while enjoying unprecedented access to postsecondary education, find “the open door is the revolving door,” he said. They leave school before completing their bachelor’s degree “because of academic and economic constraints.”

To better engage commuters, universities ought to change from lecture-intensive teaching to a collaborative method, said Dr. Tinto, so that students become part of learning communities, both in and out of the classroom. He cited successful interventions at institutions where remedial support staff worked with faculty in the classroom.

He also reported good results from some interdisciplinary and interactive learning models. “What we saw was students hanging out together in groups, talking about their projects while walking to the bus stop or to the parking lot … [and] coming in before classes, literally sitting in the hallways talking about their projects.”

On every measure of engagement, including course work, library use, writing activities and interaction with students and faculty, “students were more engaged” in these collaborative, interactive settings than in lecture-based classrooms, said Dr. Tinto. “And more of them continued from one year to the next.”

Rosanna Tamburri
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  1. vivian / December 15, 2013 at 19:59

    I’d like to point out that one important nuance regarding this issue that was not explicitly addressed, is the distance commuter students have to travel. You may be a commuter student, but only live 20 minutes away from campus by public transportation. Another commuter student may live 1.5 hours from campus. Certainly they’d both be under the commuter student category, but the first student is definitely more advantaged relative to the second.