Identifying Off-Campus Student Populations

I first started serving commuter students in August 2014, three months after finishing my graduate work in student affairs administration.

Three years later, I almost know what I am doing.

I have met many other professionals in the same boat, or soon to be, along the way. The biggest challenge I have heard: I do not know where to start.

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This is astounding.

Many of the nation’s large urban institutions are nearly all commuter campuses. The few residence halls are reserved almost exclusively for first-year and transfer students.

Students who live off-campus almost everywhere else tend to connect and engage differently than their peers who live in the residence hall setting. What this means, is that how they engage with campus life, and what they connect to, is often different than what professionals expect.

So where do new professionals who are working with off-campus students begin? Or, how do professionals charged with beginning new programs or offices that serve commuter start the process?

The first step should be to identify exactly who are your institution’s off-campus students.

Student groups I have come across identify so many different ways, or simply just identify as students because they find the term commuter to be a stereotype or gives a negative impression.

Off-campus students include, but are not limited, the following groups:

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The list can go on and on.

Identifying your off-campus student body with the common reasons they live off campus can inform all of the work you do to serve them and connect them to your campus. This can be done through Banner, CRM, or whatever student information system your campus uses. You may also try a simple Commuter Climate Survey or a student engagement software platform, like Presence.

Some key groups in the commuter population may take extra effort to serve effectively. Here are some main populations I’ve identified to help you get started.

First-Year/Transfer Students

The first group I would suggest zeroing in on would be the freshman/transfer students living off-campus. I have found over the past three years that retention of these students is usually lower than those who lived on-campus when they first arrived and then moved off.

The reason being: they have a difficult time establishing relationships with other students that become the support network they need to thrive.

Why focus on this group? Every institution’s desire is to retain all its’ students.

This group may also include students who went to high school locally. If this is the case, these students may feel that attending college is no different from high school or community college, if they attended.

They wake up, show up for class, then may head home at the end of the day. Living at home under parental guidance can also be difficult, as house rules probably have not changed. They still may have to check in with their parent or guardian, have a curfew, and contribute to bills.

Depending on your institution’s First-Year Experience/Orientation programs, new students who live off-campus are most likely not an immediate concern. Look for ways to engage, or even collaborate with First-Year Experience offices, if applicable.

Greek Life

Another common reason for students to move off-campus is to live in their organization’s house, or a rented house/apartment with their peers.

This might be your institution’s largest group of off-campus students. If so, look for ways you can partner with the Greek Office and/or Greek Life chapter advisors.

Parent Students

One of the growing populations of students are those who are returning to school or starting school for the first time as a parent and/or guardian. Coupled with students who decide to get married while in enrolled, this population often is overlooked because most professionals assume they aren’t going to make it out to events. Are they completely wrong in thinking that? No, especially if there are young children involved.

The biggest challenge for this group are going to the time needed to care for children or a family. Since they are students as well, they may not able to afford a babysitter once a week to come to your leadership seminar or bingo night or find one on short notice.

If your programs or events are later in the evening, say after 7:00 PM, you probably should not count them as potential attendees – bedtime routines usually start around this time. Try offering a variety of times for programs; many parent-students may come onto campus early in the morning. Free coffee and brief conversation is a great way to start.

Military/Veteran Students

Military or Veteran students may also form one of the larger groups of students living off-campus. Depending on whether your institution has a veteran student affairs office, there may be no single person designated as their representative or trained to understand or engage with them.

Veteran or military students may have more mental or emotional challenges coming to school with them. Depending on their military career, their experiences will vary and it can be too easy to place them in a single box. No experience will be equal to another, just as any person you encounter will have a different story then the next.

Graduate Students

Very recently, we have begun looking more closely at graduate students in programs that do not have their own student services representatives. This group has added 1,000+ students to our off-campus population.

What we have found is that Graduate Students, just like undergraduate commuters, want to have a community to belong to. They are further along in their development, and tend towards being concerned with graduating and entering their professional field of choice, but the desire for community is there.

If your campus has graduate programs, seek personnel who are responsible for community or professional development of the graduate students. This will be a key person to seek to build a relationship with.

Your Thoughts!

Remember: just because off-campus students do not seem connected to the institution, we cannot assume they are disconnected. It’s time to get rid of that mindset. Many of the reasons students choose to live off-campus in the first place proves they are connecting with others in many other different ways.

In the next posts for this off-campus life series, we will begin talking about some methods of meeting these students where they and how to engage them in the community.

What are some ways you have met the needs for the above student populations?

What are some areas you’re still struggling with? What are areas you feel where you’re excelling with engagement? Join the conversation by tweeting us @themoderncampus.

Eric Fehr

About the author: Eric Fehr (he/him) is the Director of Student Engagement & the Principal Designated School Official at Ohio Christian University. Learn how we can help get your students involved.