Commuting students make up about 85% of the undergraduate population at the University of Houston. In the past decade, UH has been striving to enhance its image as a school with a vibrant campus life, straying away from its history as an accessible commuter campus for working-class students. But we can’t forget that these commuting students are exactly what makes our school so special.
Before becoming UH, the school began as a small junior college only offering night courses for working students hoping to become teachers. Now, almost 100 years later, the university has expanded to include a law school, a medical school, and over 100-degree programs. It offers over 500 campus organizations and there’s always an activity happening on campus. It still caters to working students and still offers night classes. Many UH students work full-time or part-time jobs and live at home. The university serves almost twice as many low-income students as other large Texas universities.
One of the best things about UH is how incredibly diverse it is. Our student body is composed of people of different backgrounds and a wide range of ages. Even in a city as diverse as Houston, this is something to be proud of. The school wasn’t always culturally diverse, and it didn’t become that way overnight. But there are still gaps between graduation rates of Black and white students and Hispanic and white students. Research shows that Black and Hispanic students, first-generation college students, and low-income students are all at a higher risk for not graduating. These gaps are becoming smaller, but supporting commuting students and their needs is clearly essential in continuing to narrow those graduation rate gaps.
UH campus is uniquely Houstonian. It has a central location in our giant sprawling city. It isn’t designed to house its entire student body on campus. It has always provided a great education without requiring unconventional students to uproot their lives.
President and Chancellor Renu Khator’s investments in sports are an effort for UH to garner more name recognition and encourage campus pride and camaraderie. Encouraging more school spirit is never a bad idea, and those are respectable efforts that seem to be working. Interest in the school is growing and applications have doubled in the past decade. But it’s clear that UH faces pressure from other big Texas universities to have a party feel, where most students live on or around campus and rally hard for football games.
Some people get the appeal of UH, and some people would rather move to a college town with tens of thousands of students living on campus. Unlike UT and A&M, UH is a realistic option for working students who need Houston’s industry resources and can’t afford to move onto campus. Houston has opportunities for people in every career field. UH is the perfect school for many students because of its accessibility.
There is undeniably a stigma around being a commuter school. We’ve all heard the offensive nickname “Cougar High,” aimed at undergraduate students who live at home. It’s impressive that UH has become the powerhouse that it is today while having a relatively small number of students living on campus. Our huge population of commuting students proves that college doesn’t have to feel like summer camp to be a great university.
Ultimately, the image that UH is trying to distance itself from isn’t hurting the success of the university. In fact, this is part of what makes UH so appealing, and we shouldn’t be embarrassed of being a commuter school. Our school has renowned programs and faculty but remains accessible to low-income, working, and nontraditional students.
Being a commuter school does not conflict with UH’s attempts to become a top 50 public university. Hopefully, as UH gains prestige in coming years, it continues to prioritize and value these students. UH should embrace its unique commuter reputation rather than try to shed it. Our history embodies all of the hard-working students that have attended this school for almost a century.