Stop for commuters

By Shira Tevah, 09

Photography by Dan Dry

Denise Valero, ’11, lives off campus—way off campus, in her childhood home five miles west of Hyde Park. Her parents emigrated from Mexico, and Valero is the youngest of four siblings who all commuted to college and graduate school while helping out around the house. The family goes to church and eats together every Sunday—a tradition Valero continues. But had she enrolled this past fall, she would not have been eligible to commute as a first-year.

In 2007 Susan Art, the College’s dean of students, announced a plan to end the first-year option of living off campus. Students may live where they wish during subsequent years, and first-years may skip the dorm requirement if they have a “compelling case”—children, for instance, or health problems, or certain religious beliefs. But Art worried that commuters were less involved than peers in campus life and had difficulty maintaining good grades. Administrators, she says, were “shortchanging” them “by allowing them to commute.”


The shift in policy finalizes the College’s long transition from what John Boyer, AM’69, PhD’75, dean of the College, calls “substantially a commuter school”—47 percent of the incoming class of 1928 and 60 percent in 1940 lived at home—to one based on the collegiate house system. Chicago finally has adequate housing built or in the works for incoming students, who numbered about 1,300 in 2008, and has incorporated residential life as a key aspect of the College experience.

From the University’s founding, Boyer says, many students came from local working-class and lower-middle-class families and had to commute to afford tuition. Students from around the Midwest commonly commuted from boarding houses, which were cheaper than dorms. Just before the Depression, Boyer says, tuition and room-and-board cost between $600 and $800, and “the median income level of factory workers wasn’t much more than that.” Many students took only two courses per quarter to leave time for jobs. “They lived at home,” Boyer says, “and commuted here on the trolley or the streetcar.”

The commuter population has dwindled since the 1950s, Boyer says, in part because by the early 1970s need-based aid and Pell Grants were helping students pay for housing. Also, in 1950 the University began recruiting out-of-state students, who had no choice but to live away from home. The commuter population has become tiny: the average number over the past six years was 14. In making their decision, Boyer, Art, and a faculty advisory committee relied on data gathered by former commuter advisers Lou Tremante and Anita Gajula. Studying six years’ worth of information, they found the students had lower-than-average GPAs and took longer to graduate. Although it’s “very hard to make big generalizations with little numbers,” Art says, the anecdotal evidence did not suggest that living at home helped first-years’ grades.

While first-years who choose to live at home may cite lower costs, Art says that isn’t necessarily true. Alicia Reyes, director of College aid, adds that students eligible for need-based grant assistance receive more aid to cover the additional expenses of living on campus. For students who receive no aid, 43 percent of current first-years, commuting would in fact reduce costs.

Art and Associate Dean Bill Michel, AB’92, told the commuters about the change at their fall 2007 quarterly meeting. “We felt blindsided,” says Lima Lawrence, ’09, who has spent all four years walking from her family’s Hyde Park home and has been one of the 20 or so active members of the Commuter Students Association (CSA). Commuter activists presented testimonies from friends and teachers about their social involvement and academic performance, along with a letter of support from Student Government, at a meeting last year, but Art and Michel said they did not intend to reverse their decision.

Through this academic year, though, the CSA continues to have a program budget, the commuter lounge in Cobb Hall’s basement remains open, and Robin Graham is salaried as the commuter adviser, a job she’s held since spring 2007. The CSA held several events during the fall, including three lunches, a trip to see Blue Man Group, and laser tag; there were around ten students at each, according to Lawrence. They also got a printer in the lounge. “It would certainly be possible, if it makes sense, to continue” the funding until these students graduate, Art says. “But we want to see how it unfolds” this year.

Long different from its peers, the University, Boyer says, has decided to be more like other schools in one respect: requiring all current and future College students to experience the “living communities of people who come together from different walks of life, ethnic groups, and political perspectives” that make up dorms. They’re “as important as the classes you take.”

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