An issue becoming increasingly more evident on campus is the physical divide between commuter and residential students. Corie Steinke, associate director of community life, said that commuter students and residential students often do not interact beyond the classroom environment, in large part because there is a lack of a true shared community lounge space.From 2007 to 2017, the percentage of traditional undergraduate students living off-campus rose from 30 percent to 40 percent, said Justin Heinzekehr, director of institutional research. When looking at all students, the percentage rose from 52.3 percent to 46.7 percent between 2013 and 2017.
The number of commuter students has steadily risen in response to numerous factors, including increased efforts by the admissions department to bump up enrollment. Admissions has worked diligently to increase enrollment following a period of extremely low numbers from 2010-2014. Adela Hufford, dean of admissions, said that a primary tactic when recruiting new students is focusing on the institutions’ “primary markets,” which are comprised of high schools in Elkhart County, and then Indiana as a whole.
“We are the only institution of higher education in Elkhart County, so it makes sense to make sure we are recruiting within our primary markets,” said Hufford.
This recruitment strategy has proven successful. The college has seen a 34 percent increase in enrollment since 2014, with the percentage of students from within Elkhart County rising to nearly 40 percent. While any increase in enrollment is positive for the college, having more local students is changing the needs of the student body.
Due to a lack of shared space, the physical divide between students is growing. The commuter lounge, open exclusively to commuter students, provides them with a much needed non-academic space for time between classes. However, residential students do not have access. On the flip side, many commuters do not feel welcome in the KMY connector, the main non-academic public space on campus, because of its location within the residence halls, said Steinke. Administration has created the Wyse lounge, which is open to everyone, though its doors close after 5 p.m.
“I think that until there is a physical place that is for all students and is dedicated to not be academic and strictly residential or strictly commuter, the only way we’re going to bridge the gap is if someone takes the chance to cross the tracks,” said Steinke. “We need to figure out what that next move is going to be.”
Rocio Diaz, coordinator for intercultural community engagement, also pointed to the need for a more shared space, saying the institution needs to arrive at a place where “The whole college is for everyone.”
Another issue arising as the student body becomes less residential is the scheduling of on-campus programs. Many events planned by Student Life Organizations such as the Campus Activities Council (CAC) occur late at night, making it difficult for commuters to be involved. Even academic activities, such as group meetings, often occur after-hours.
“The problem is that we want commuter students to be engaged and involved, but we want them to do that in the same way that residential students are engaged and involved. That’s not necessarily the life of a commuter student,” said Steinke. “It’s not realistic.”
As a way to help alleviate scheduling problems and better accommodate all students, there have been initiatives to begin altering the programming model. One example of this is the introduction of the Commuter Student Association (CSA). Currently, the leader of this group works alongside CAC to give input regarding programs for students. Next year, a full-time, paid student CSA leadership position will be introduced to work exclusively with the commuters.
CSA also works to provide better accommodations for commuter students on campus. One of the current projects is working with Chef Jeremy Corson to create a minimal meal plan for commuters so that they can eat occasional meals at Westlawn Dining Hall. This would help to create a space where residential students and commuters can interact.
A large factor affecting commuter students is transportation. For students without a vehicle, they must rely on other students, family members, or public transportation. However, scheduling can be problematic, sometimes resulting in an inability to arrive or leave campus at a viable time. Weather also creates issues. Factors such as snow and rain greatly impact the ability for students to reach campus.
Diaz suggests the implementation of a program similar to that for hosting prospective students as a potential solution. “Why not create some sort of a list of students that will host commuter students once a month, or whenever the weather is bad?” said Diaz. This would also allow another opportunity to bridge the residential-commuter gap.
“I don’t want to portray these students as victims,” Diaz said. “I just want to create awareness. We need to look at creative ideas on how to assist these students.”
As Steinke said, “it seems that everybody wants a piece of the commuter pie.” There is strong interest from nearly every student and faculty group in integrating that portion of the Goshen Community into campus.
There are numerous plans in the works to help with this goal. The renovations to the Union building look long-term to providing a better community space. The need for a true student union is being recognized. Another positive change is the addition of more leadership positions for commuter students within student life organizations.
“There has to be a little bit of give all over campus to accommodate this population that’s growing and needs attention,” said Steinke. “I really do think [the relationship] is going to get better, just because so many people are interested.”
Editors Note: This article was written as part of a Reporting for the Public Good class.