January 18, 2008

U of C moves to end commuter program

When third-year Lima Lawrence sat down at last quarter’s commuter students’ luncheon, she anticipated some changes. She hoped that Dean of Students Susan Art and Associate Dean Bill Michel were attending the luncheon to announce plans for renovating the commuter students’ lounge, now in the basement of Cobb Hall.

Instead, the deans announced that beginning in fall quarter of 2008, incoming first-year students will no longer have the option to commute from home except in special circumstances they determined. In June of 2009, the University will close the commuter lounge. The commuter option will still be open to existing first-year commuters and all second-, third-, and fourth- years.

“The decision came without anyone knowing,” said Lawrence, president of the Commuter Students Association. “We had no idea they were going to cut off commuters from coming in.”

Dean of the College John Boyer and a faculty advisory committee based their decision on six years of research on past commuter students, primarily by their advisers. The main reason for the administration’s decision is a report by former commuter adviser Lou Tremante which cited low grade point averages among commuter students. Anita Gajula, the commuter adviser who succeeded Tremante, polled students and found that more than half of commuters had regrets about living off-campus.

“We’ve just been concerned that the extra burden of the commute is really back-breaking for some students,” Art said. She noted that family responsibilities at home and long hours spent in transit between home and school have led some past commuter students to transfer or drop out.

Special circumstances under which the deans would allow an incoming first-year to commute include certain family situations, health problems, or religious reasons. Art has already made an exception for an admitted student with a wife and child. However, she expects a significant decline in the number of first-years permitted to commute next fall.

“We just felt that this put them at an unfair disadvantage for no reason, that the commuter program was not serving our students well,” she said.

Many commuter students, however, have spoken out against the termination of the commuting option for incoming first-years. In a meeting between commuter students and current commuter adviser Robin Graham last week, students questioned the validity of Tremante’s report and the administration’s reasons for the new policy.

Lawrence said that many commuters wonder whether the administration simply wants all students to pay housing fees to the University. Some also find the removal of the commuter option counterproductive to other University initiatives, such as offering Odyssey scholarships for low- and moderate-income students.

“If the University is serious about recruiting more Chicago public school students, I think they have to keep a more open mind about letting students commute,” Lawrence said.

While financial need will not be ruled out as a special circumstance, Art believes that most would-be commuters have nothing to lose in terms of expenses by living on campus.

“The way the financial aid budgets work means that the amount of out-of-pocket expenses for commuting students and students living on campus...are equivalent,” Art said.

In addition to concerns about commuters’ academic success, Art cites the strength of the University’s residential system and the integration of the University community as reasons for having all first-years live in the dorms.

“Most years—except for this year, when there have been 20 or 22 incoming students—there have been 10–12 commuter students per year,” Art said. “We’ve been worried that they’re kind of marginalized here at the University.”

Most commuters, however, feel they have developed lasting bonds with each other. In their basement lounge, commuters relax, talk, study, eat lunch, and play pool together.

“I can understand where they’re coming from,” said first-year commuter Asantewaa Ture of the administration. “But I don’t feel like it’s necessary to completely omit that option. I understand that there are advantages to living on campus, but there are also advantages to being a commuter.”

Currently, Lawrence is working to defend the commuting option for first-years in hope that the deans may reinstate it in 2009. She plans to make her case by presenting student testimony and letters of support from commuters’ parents, faculty, and commuter alumni to the administration in a meeting mid-quarter.

“We want to have our ammo ready,” she said.

The 14 responses from commuter students Lawrence has collected so far give several reasons why the commuter option should not be eliminated. Some argue that commuting from home is a student’s right. Others reported negative experiences in the dorms which made them decide to commute.

A few respondents say they admitted feelings of missing out on the residential experience to Tremante or Gajula, but that other factors, such as needing time to adjust to the University environment, may have been the real culprits.

“I don’t think just moving onto campus will solve everyone’s problems,” Lawrence said.

Still, the deans feel that the dorm experience is an important component of a University of Chicago education and that students should think carefully before opting out of it.

“It would be like a student saying, ‘Well, I’m not going to the University of Chicago because I don’t want to do a Core curriculum,’” Art said. “To get this education, you have to do certain things.”

However, the deans hope their decision will not marginalize existing commuters.

“There are students here who have very good reasons to want to commute from home, and we certainly want to support that,” Art said.