Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type



Feinstein School of Education and Human Development

Department (Manual Entry)

Education Doctoral Program


The demographics of the college student population, the dearth of research on commuter students, and the pervasive negative stereotypes of commuters indicate that an appreciation of the commuter student experience is important for the future of higher education (Dugan et al., 2008; Jacoby, 1989; Krause, 2007). The Digest of Education Statistics 2011 reports that in academic years 2003-04 and 2007-08 85.8% of all students enrolled at postsecondary institutions did not live in on-campus housing (Snyder & Dillow, 2012). Despite their status as the numerical majority, commuter students are still considered nontraditional (Orgren, 2003). Due to the variations in commuter student populations, it is important for each institution to study its commuters, and to use that information to guide policy and programs, instead of basing decisions on data collected nationwide or at a particular institution (Dugan et al., 2008; Jacoby, 1989). As the vast majority of State College undergraduate students commute (Office of Institutional Research and Planning, 2012), it is necessary to have an understanding of the phenomenon of commuting. To gain this understanding, the theoretical frames of critical theory, campus ecology, and phenomenology were used to guide the exploration of two research questions:

  1. How do commuter students make meaning of their college experience?
  2. How do commuter students describe the role of campus space and place in their college experience?

For this study I interviewed ten participants, asked them to collect photos that represented their college lives, interviewed them about their photos (participant-driven photo elicitation), and conducted gallery walk focus groups in which the participants’ photos were displayed and they had an opportunity to discuss the themes present in the photos. Through general inductive thematic analysis, as well as the trustworthiness measures of member checking, peer debriefing, and triangulation, three overarching themes emerged: commuter students and dorm people, “How difficult it is for commuters” (Victoria), but we’re used to it, and finding a “second home” (Lindsay). These themes, along with a review of the findings through the lenses of the theoretical frameworks, were used to develop recommendations for both practice and research related to commuter students.