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Sniffing Out Commuter Schools

By Matthew Scandale

While a local commuter college by choice can be a great option for reasons of cost, convenience, and ease of transition into adulthood, you certainly donít want to attend a commuter school if youíre looking to go away from home and experience new people, places, and ideas. While students away from home are looking to explore parties, hijinks, trips into town, and all-night bull sessions, commuters may be home eating dinner with their parents and asleep by 9 pm. At a commuter school, the campus may seem like a ghost town on weekends, or even at 5:00 pm every day, and the people you meet there might be walking to class arm-in-arm with their former high school chums. You can find the dreaded commuter school at a public or private school, a prestigious or unknown one, big or small. Colleges will never advertise that theyíre commuter schools. In fact, theyíll often try to disguise or downplay this aspect by touting the number of dorms they have, or the percentage of students who live in the dorms. Itís up to you to sniff out the commuter schools somehow, so that you wonít unknowingly wind up at one, perhaps regretting it.

Researching at the number of students who live on campus may not tell you much. Many away-from-home schools have a short supply of campus housing, but students may be living in apartments, shared houses, fraternities, and sororities. Even if 25% of students live on campus, the vast majority of the other 75% could be commuters.

Comparing the number of part-time students (available from Petersonís Online, for example) may give some indicator. If a school has about 10% part-time students, this could indicate that itís an away-from-home school. If a school has 40% or 50% part-time students, this could indicate itís more of a commuter school.

Looking at the geographic location can sometimes help. If the school has 20,000 students with an average SAT score of 1200 and is located in a town of 50,000 people with the nearest major metropolitan area of 1,000,000 people at least 200 miles away, it would be difficult or impossible for this school to be a commuter school. The population within daily commuting distance wouldnít typically be able to generate that many candidates of that profile. If the school has 20,000 students with an average SAT score of 1000 and is located inside a metropolitan area of 3,000,000 people, the local population could easily generate candidates for it.

The best way to tell is to visit the university extensively, not on the official campus tour, preferably for a couple days, at least one night, and a weekday as well as a weekend. Talk to as many students as possible, not the ones in the official question-and-answer sessions. Itíll probably be very intimidating, but youíll want to walk up to random students in the cafeteria or the library and ask them if you could please borrow 2 minutes of their time because youíre trying to find out about that college. Be sure to ask them where they came from, and why they chose the school. If they start to hint at things like campus life or typical students, ask them to provide their own guesses or perceptions as to what students are like and what they do. Another way is to get the inside scoop is to go stay at the school overnight with an older friend who goes there. If you know an older student from your high school that attends there, even if you donít know them well, contact them and ask if it you could stay with them for a night. Some campuses even have overnight sessions where students volunteer to host prospective students overnight to give them a taste of campus life.

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