The Rise of the Commuter Student: Changing Patterns of College Attendance for Students Living at Home in the United States, 1960–1980

by Dongbin Kim & John L. Rury - 2011

Background/Context: American higher education witnessed rapid expansion during the period between 1960 and 1980, as colleges and universities welcomed millions of new students. During the period, the proportion of 19- and 20-year-old students living in dormitories, rooming houses, or other group quarters fell from more than 40% to slightly less than a third. At the same time, the proportion of students in this age group living at home with one or two parents increased from about 35% to nearly 47%, becoming the largest segment of the entering collegiate population in terms of residential alternatives. During this period, while growing numbers of high school graduates each fall headed off to campus dormitories, even more enrolled in commuter institutions close to home, gaining their initial collegiate experience in circumstances that may not have differed very much from what they had experienced in secondary school. The increased numbers of commuter students, whether they attended two-year or four-year institutions, however, have received little attention from historians and other social scientists.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: This study focuses on students aged 19 and 20 who lived with parents and commuted from home during the years from 1960 to 1980, when commuters became the largest category of beginning college students. It also addresses the question of how this large-scale change affected the social and economic profile of commuter students in the United States. In this regard, this study can be considered an evaluation of policy decisions intended to widen access to postsecondary institutions. Did the growing number of students living at home represent a democratic impulse in higher education, a widening of access to include groups of students who had previously been excluded from college? The study approaches this question by examining changes in the characteristics and behavior of commuter students across the country. Recognizing the variation in enrollment rates and other educational indices by state or region, this study also focuses on how the individual behavior at the point of college entry is affected by these and other characteristics of the larger social setting, particularly from a historical perspective.

Research Design: To grasp the larger picture of historical trends in college enrollment during the period of study, particularly in the growth of commuter students, the first part of the study utilizes state-level data and identifies changes in the number of entering college students who were commuters. In the process, descriptive statistics and ordinary least squares regression are used to identify factors associated with the proportion of college students living with their parents across states. In the second stage of analysis, hierarchical generalized linear modeling, utilizing both state- and individual-level data, is used to consider different layers of contextual effects on individual decisions to enroll in college.

Data Collection and Analysis: At the individual level, the principal sources of information are from 1% Integrated Public Use Microdata Samples (IPUMS) for 1960 and 1980. These are individual-level census data that permit consideration of a wide range of variables, including college enrollment. State-level variables are drawn from the published decennial census volumes, from National Center for Education Statistics reports on the number of higher education institutions, and from aggregated IPUMS data.

Conclusions/Recommendations: This study finds that commuter students in the United States appear to have benefited from greater institutional availability, the decline of manufacturing, continued urbanization, and a general expansion of the middle class that occurred across the period in question. It was a time of growth for this sector of the collegiate population. Despite rhetoric about wider access to postsecondary education during the period, however, the nation’s colleges appear to have continued to serve a relatively affluent population, even in commuter institutions. Although making postsecondary institutions accessible to commuter students may have improved access in some circumstances, for most American youth, going to college appears to have remained a solidly middle- and upper-class phenomenon.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 113 Number 5, 2011, p. 1031-1066 ID Number: 16088, Date Accessed: 7/24/2021 5:29:15 PM

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