Long commutes make students more likely to drop out

Travel time negatively affected progression at three of six London universities studies

August 14, 2019
London Tube
Source: Getty

Students who have long commutes to their university may be more likely to drop out of their degrees, a study has found.

Researchers who examined undergraduate travel time and progression rates at six London universities found that duration of commute was a significant predictor of continuation at three institutions, even after other factors such as subject choice and entry qualifications were taken into account.

The issue is a particular concern for universities in the UK’s capital because retention accounts for a quarter of the metrics in the teaching excellence framework, in which London institutions are regarded as having underperformed. This new study, published on 14 August, was commissioned by London Higher, which represents universities in the city.

At the six institutions in the study, many students had travel times of between 10 and 20 minutes, while many others travelled for between 40 and 90 minutes. Median travel times varied between 40 and 60 minutes.

At one university, every additional 10 minutes of commuting reduced the likelihood of progression beyond end-of-first-year assessments by 1.5 per cent. At another, the prospect of continuation declined by 0.63 per cent with each additional 10 minutes of travel.

At yet another institution, a one-minute increase in commute was associated with a 0.6 per cent reduction in the chances of a student’s continuing, although at this university it was only journeys of more than 55 minutes that were particularly problematic for younger students, and this might reflect the area these students were travelling from.

“Our findings suggest not only that students who commute in London may face barriers in their studies, but they may be less likely to pass their end of first year assessments, possibly also acting as an early signal in their prospects for retention and attainment,” the study says.

It adds that understanding “the effects commuting might have on student success may help [universities] to improve student continuation, which is important given its weight in TEF and which necessitates prompt identification for timely interventions to take place”.

The six universities that participated in the study were East London, Greenwich, Kingston, Middlesex, West London and SOAS University of London.

About half of all students at London higher education institutions are from the metropolis. In contrast to the quantitative data, a separate report by London Higher, also published on 14 August, found that students framed commuting positively, “valuing a separation between home and studying, and avoiding being distracted by peers”.

However, this study, led by consultant Liz Thomas and based on workshops with 38 students, also flags some of the challenges associated with commuter students: they tended to find travelling tiring and expensive, and it limited their ability to participate in group work, support activities and extracurricular events.

The report recommends that to better serve commuters universities consolidate students’ time on campus and try to limit the need to travel at peak times, when journeys are crowded and costlier. More widespread use of lecture capture and provision of 24-hour access to libraries and study spaces are also suggested.

London Higher says it will lobby the Department for Education on the need to take account of commuting time when comparing performance on continuation, and will also conduct research about the impact of commuting on staff, and any knock-on effects on students.


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Reader's comments (9)

Is it possible to have a link to the published study added please?
Following the publication of the report, this link has now been added.
I can honestly say I dropped out of Brighton University because I had to travel for two hours there and back on the train. At the time - admittedly over ten years ago - I couldn't live in halls as I lived 'too close' and I felt completely isolated and missed out on student life. I was constantly late due to rail works and in the end couldn't face walking in to the lecture hall and being called out for my lateness. I ended up leaving and reapply to a midlands university where I was able to live in halls and close to campus. Long student commutes should not be underestimated!
This isn't surprising as it fits with the more general impact of longer commuting see Stutzer, A and Frey, B.S. (2008) Stress that Doesn't Pay: The Commuting Paradox The Scandinavian Journal of Economics 110 (2) pp339-366 https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1467-9442.2008.00542.x and the more recent ONS study reported in The Guardian here: https://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2014/feb/12/how-does-commuting-affect-wellbeing On the plus side it shows that cycling for 30+ minutes is good, which I do each day each way!
And if students and universities were really interested in the climate instead of preaching to others, they will live locally to their universities so they can walk. That goes for the staff as well. Or is the university industry's use of the word climate merely an advertising tool, aimed at vulnerable young people not yet able to sort out the concept of hypocrisy, in which case the advertising watch dog must become involved.
Indeed, a VC doing a daily round trip of ~150 miles by car, even though they have an official FOC Uni residence within 5 miles of campus isn't unusual.
Easier said than done. My (academic) husband and I (uni administrator) had to move the length of the country for his permanent role, the only suitable university role I could get was 60 odd miles away. Commute is either drive - train - bus and back or walk - bus - train - bus, sometimes I can be home just over 90 minutes after leaving the office though the record is 4 and a half hours. I would LOVE to live close enough to work to walk or cycle but hiring freezes and apparent over-qualification has put paid to this wish.
Many mature students undertake long commutes because their families are settled elsewhere from where they choose to study. So do members of staff whose partners may be working, and offspring studying, far from where they get a position. As for London students, EVERYONE in London has to cope with poor travelling conditions. It would be better to look at student commuters elsewhere in the country, where living near your university is at least feasible (apart from the factors mentioned above).
Strange and not very convincing conclusions. "a significant predictor of continuation at three institutions". What about the other 3 Universities in the study? If the answer to the investigation is only true half the time, how much weight can you put on the conclusions. The increase in drop out rates seems very small. A sample size of 38 students is very low. Assuming that was around 6 students per location I would be reluctant to claim there was any meaniningful conclusions at all. The report seems to me to have been a complete waste of time and money.