Understanding the Commuter Student Experience, from a Student’s Perspective

I am currently living my life off of the expression “If it’s not on my Google calendar, I’m not going.”


[1:30] Class starts in 30 minutes, and I am still about 20 minutes away.

[2:06] Class has started, and I am rushing to my seat because I spent the past 16 minutes looking for a place to park.

[4:32] Class is over, and I begin to walk back across campus to get into my car and go home. On the way, I see the posters and the signs for events around campus I know I won’t be able to attend.

I am a 22-year-old senior commuter student at a four-year university, and I repeat this routine approximately 34 times during one semester, ignoring the program advertisements that I see around me. I am constantly on-the-go, whether to work, my internship, or home to do independent research or homework.

It’s not that I am not interested in getting involved on campus.

I don’t get involved at the extra- or co-curricular level because it seems like my lifestyle and needs aren’t considered when programs are being organized. Campus events seem to be centered around students who live on campus, even though 37% of us don’t.

So, what does this mean for student affairs professionals?

It means that in order to get me (and students like me) to your program, you need to think about how commuter students could be engaged, what we need, and what our days are like.

By tailoring events towards the interests and lifestyle needs of commuter students, you’ll get a much better turnout of these students you have been assuming are disengaged.

I’ve been asked why I don’t get as involved as I’d like to around campus, so I decided to make a list of the reasons why — and what you, as a student affairs professional, can do to make your events more welcoming to commuters.

1. I feel disconnected from campus because I feel like I’m not considered

Commuter students have different needs and schedules than most residential students do. If your student body has a decent amount of commuter students, it might be time to consider establishing an office of commuter student life (if you do not have one already).

By establishing a department — or even a position — that can focus on commuter students, you open up the possibility for much more intentional engagement and program design. When I realized that these offices exist on some campuses already I was instantly curious to find out more and if my university had one (my campus doesn’t).

If you’re not able to dedicate a position or office to the success of commuter students, then consider how your department members can work together to learn about and support them.

Understanding commuter students’ interests and lifestyles will go a long way when working to create programs that reach them.

I wish the staff at my school knew that:

  • I work part-time
  • I have a part-time internship
  • I volunteer for an independent organization, adding an additional part-time workload
  • Instagram is my preferred social network
  • I’d like to know more students on campus
  • I enjoy getting to know my professors and building relationships with my advisors
  • I want to feel connected to the school I am receiving my education from…but I don’t


Commuter students report that they don't join student organizations because they: 68% don't have enough time, 53% have work commitments, 46% commute to and from campus. Ohio State University, 2015

Start analyzing student involvement data for your institution and see where commuter students are — and are not — showing up.

By looking at involvement data that segments to identify commuter students, you can learn what days and times they are on campus the most and plan events based on that information. Because in reality, it’s rare that I would come back to school just to attend an event.   

2. It would be cool to have more events that make sense for me to go to

Once you have an understanding of what commuter students currently are doing, you can start appealing to them more effectively. For example, commuter students are less likely to be involved in student organizations, so expecting them to feel naturally compelled to go to a club fair is a little unrealistic.

However, creating smaller events catered directly to them will allow you to build a connection to motivate their future involvement. This can be accomplished by facilitating a promotional event that leads up to the main event. In planning that event, keep in mind that commuters are often balancing several other things other than school, so avoid hosting events that are two hours long or late in the evening.

Here are a few events (smaller and larger) that I’d be interested in:

  • Grab-and-go snacks and advising near the parking areas
  • Something incorporates my friends or family, like a “Family Feud”-style game
  • Commuter student meet-and-greets
  • Smaller, passive events that are specific to my college of study (and in that building)
  • Contests or events hosted on social media
  • Small engagement events that students can participate in their downtime like trivia and cornhole
  • Skill-building workshops on subjects like budgeting, time management, and job searching
  • Family-friendly events happening during the weekends when I’m not working my other jobs

It’s easy to draw students into an event with the promise of free stuff, but giving commuter students recognition will motivate them to truly engage. So brand events specifically for commuter students to let us know that you see us. Or create a set of marketing materials specifically aimed at commuter students, rather than using the same poster for all students you are trying to reach (but more on this in a moment).

3. I had no idea that these events were even happening

I didn’t know there was anything happening” — it’s a phrase that discourages both higher ed professionals and students alike. I have often missed out on events because I just have no idea they were happening and all of the posters around campus blur together. Simply understanding commuter students is not enough to get them coming to your events.

Sometimes, marketing can feel like throwing darts against a wall while blindfolded. But there are plenty of tools (free and paid) that you can use to reach students to complement all of those posters.

You can utilize email tools like MailChimp to segment your email marketing, directly targeting commuter students with uniquely tailored emails. And student engagement tools like Presence allow you to let students know about events they may be interested based upon their involvement record.

Utilize social media tools that students are active on, like Instagram and Twitter, and post with hashtags that your students use. You can also run targeted social media ads to promote large-scale or important events. Students use their cell phones as a way of obtaining news and information, so lean into that.

Identify where commuter students spend most of our downtime on campus, because that is where we are most likely to see your advertisements. Create posters that are colorful and clear, that grab our attention. You don’t need a lot of text on a page to communicate the essential components of an event.

4. I want to go to events that are relevant to me

Once you finally get commuter students to your events, you need to strategically figure out how you are going to keep them consistently engaged.

Survey your students during or after events to learn how they learned about the event and what types of events they want to see in the future. That way, as you plan for future events, you can turn to data that you have collected — not hypotheses that you’ve made.

And if you haven’t yet seen significant commuter student attendance at your events, send out a survey to your entire base of commuter students to see why they aren’t showing up.


[4:32] Class is over, I am walking across campus to an event that I heard about that seems interesting. I think I’ll go.

[6:14] I am driving home thinking to myself, I wish I did more on campus…maybe I’ll start.

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Lindsey Velde

About the author: Lindsey was formerly the Content Marketing Intern at Presence, and a senior at the University of South Florida - St. Petersburg studying marketing. When she’s not in class, she is working closely with National Model United Nations as an Assistant Director. Learn how we can help get your students involved.

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