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Commuters and Commuter Schools

Commuters and Commuter Schools
 

Two preliminaries. First, the initial spur for this blog came from our new University president, who has a knack for asking timely questions. I hope I am usefully embellishing the thought. Second, this is an unabashed effort to have my institutional cake and eat it too, but I think our record warrants the combination; you can, of course, judge that.

The issue is commuting undergraduate students and the label Mason has long had, and still combats, of being “just” a commuter school.

We’ve devoted quite a bit of energy over the past decade to increase our range of recruitment and build more campus housing. As a result, over 75% of our freshmen live on campus, and we have over 6000 residential students overall, plus many who take apartments in the area. I think this has paid off for all our students, residential or not, in among other things a stronger reputation and additional kinds of diversity—diversity of home base—in the student body itself.

In the process we’ve fought the derogatory label of commuter school, a label which suggests confinement to purely regional service and lack of wider appeal. The fact that labels are hard to change, even when the facts on the ground have changed, has heightened our zeal. We really aren’t a classic commuter school. We have expanded our national and international draw. We do have a strong national and international reputation—as the recent global polls from Shanghai, putting us in the top 80 U.S. schools and the top 150-200 internationally, abundantly demonstrate.

Yet we still have a lot of commuting students, particularly among our many transfers but also among a minority of first-years. These students provide talent and diversity, building on the strength of the region’s K-12 system and the rich mix of its population. We have had and still have lots of talented commuter students. Now, with the growing concern about higher education costs, we have every reason to expect a continued stream of commuting students, for whom we can take some pride in making a good education accessible.

So let’s recognize that the blasts against commuter schools show a narrowness of vision that we should not encourage. Of course we’re not “just” a commuter school, and we can legitimately insist on our wider strengths and gains. But we are also a commuter school, and we should acknowledge and welcome this aspect as well.

And it is time—even as we build more dorms, and as demand for housing continues to mount—to make sure we are indeed serving and integrating our commuter students well. This is a logical part of our new round of strategic thinking. I hope to contribute by making a special effort to be sure that, on my student advisory panel this year, I have strong representation from commuting students, and by taking their participation as a means of discussing with them and with their residential colleagues what more we can do to make our distinctive mixture successful.

We shouldn’t be trapped by labels, but we also shouldn’t be trapped by excessive efforts to avoid labels. The best Mason we can be includes our commuter population.