Staying on track off campus

  • Article by: KEVYN BURGER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 27, 2012 - 8:28 PM

Students who live at home have to work a bit harder to form friendships -- and an essential connection to college.

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Not every student who enters college this fall will be moving into a dorm. Nearly half will enroll in a two-year program.

In 2010, just over 138,000 Minnesotans were enrolled in a community or technical college, according to the Minnesota Office of Higher Education. That same year, about 162,000 of the state's undergraduates attended a public or private college or university.

The vast majority of community and technical college students who begin classes after high school graduation continue to live at home. But sleeping in their childhood bedroom, raiding the family fridge and working the same job they had before they started college can disguise the fact that their lives have changed dramatically.

"Students are often taken by surprise by the freedom they have at college," said Mike Bruner, vice president for student services at Century College in White Bear Lake. "If they have time between classes, it's up to them to decide how to use it. They need to have a plan to make their days productive if they are going to be successful."

Students who commute also need to form a connection with campus and engage with other students.

"There is plenty of research that shows that the more involved a student is, the more likely they are to stick with it," said Tricia Grimes, policy analyst for the Minnesota Office of Higher Education. "Community college surveys found students who spend more time on campus -- using tutoring centers, going to see faculty during office hours, joining a study group -- have improved retention and completion rates."

That's why Century College offers more than 40 clubs and organizations and Inver Hills Community College in Inver Grove Heights groups freshmen into "learning communities."

"They meet people who have shared assignments and common goals," said Inver Hills counselor Rob Harris. "They don't go back to a residence hall, so they need to build new friendships and networks."

That's a challenge more students at four-year school are facing, as well.

Because of the cost, a growing number of students who attend colleges and universities are living at home. "How America Pays for College 2012," the fifth annual report from student loan provider Sallie Mae, found that 51 percent of college students lived with mom and dad in the 2011-12 school year, up from 43 percent two years earlier. According to the U.S. Department of Education, living at home can save a family as much as $6,000 a year.

"I feel dumb because I live at home, but it's a better option, financially," said Amanda Muehlbauer, a 22-year-old math major at the University of Minnesota.

But living at home can increase the likelihood that students won't graduate in four years.

"The university pushes residence halls for good reason," said Robert McMaster, vice provost and dean of undergraduate education at the University of Minnesota.

Marjorie Savage, Parent Program director at the university, acknowledges that commuter students need to do more than just show up for classes and leave.

"It's critical to their success that they connect to the institution," she said. "They have to take their situation seriously. On-campus friends and activities really matter."

Kevyn Burger of Minneapolis is a broadcaster, podcaster and freelance writer.

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