Two years ago, when twins Ruth and Amanda Leppard decided to live at home while attending the nearby University of Central Florida, the whole family got together to talk about what would - and wouldn't - change from high school.
They went out to dinner, and drew up a list. Curfews were out, but responsibilities were not. The girls could come and go as they pleased but their parents had to know where they were, and whether they'd be home for dinner.
"The first year I was incredibly frustrated," said Ruth Leppard, who will move out on her own this fall after spending two years of college at the family's home in Orlando. "There were really hard times when I thought I was kind of missing out on college."
But Ruth says she understood why the rules were important, and the family made the arrangement work.
Often lost in the talk of students going "off to college" is the fact that at least 37 percent of single undergraduates continue to live with their families while attending college, according to 2004 government figures provided by the American Council on Education.
That compares to 29 percent who lived off-campus on their own and just 26 percent who lived on campus. Those figures don't include another 8 percent of students who transferred that year, some of whom may also have lived at home.
Living at home can have advantages, and not just financially. A 2003 study in a psychiatric journal found that students who live with their parents show higher mental health levels than those who don't, a phenomenon attributed to better sleep patterns.
It can also be rewarding for parents.
"We love having them at home," said Ruth's mother, Becky Leppard. "It has been an absolute gift."
But there are strains. Parents may have trouble turning to a new chapter in their relationships with their children. Students may jealously eye the freedoms of their peers.
And for commuter students generally, getting the full college experience can be a challenge. Such students are less likely than those living on campus to take part in activities, from community service to research with faculty, that research shows correlate strongly with satisfaction and academic success.
"I've been in higher education since 1981 and I've seen it's so much more difficult for students who live at home to get involved on campus," said Sylvia Scott, director of the office for non-traditional and commuter students at the University of Arkansas, where 70 percent live off campus (the school is planning a survey to find out how many are with their families).
"And involvement is one of the key elements that contributes to their happiness."
Data suggest students who live with their parents may get less out of freshman year even than commuters generally. The Associated Press asked Indiana University's Center for Postsecondary Research to break down the more than 35,000 responses to its 1998 College Student Experiences Questionnaire by whether respondents lived on campus, off-campus on their own or with family. The center said students living with family were less likely to report substantial progress in categories such as developing values (55 percent) compared to students off campus (60 percent) or on campus (66 percent).
Andrea Thompson McCall, assistant dean of student life at the University of Southern Maine and an interfaith chaplain there, says she sometimes notices adjustment problems in the families of recent immigrants, who may continue to live at home for cultural as well as financial reasons.
"The experience of most any university student who is living in the same home as when they went to high school is the fact that they are changing so much during those years," she said. "For the sons and daughters of immigrant families there's the added layer of they're becoming Americans. Their parents want them to, but they also want them to keep their culture."
Asked for advice, experts say much the same thing: It's important for commuter students of all kinds to get involved in campus life - extracurriculars, sports, research, whatever. Colleges are increasingly exploring ways to help, from activity listserves to commuter clubs.
"Get a job on campus," Scott said. "Even if parents encourage their students to work on campus those students are more successful because they're engaged."
For the Leppard family of Orlando, a mix of financial and personal reasons lay behind the girls' decision to live at home. An older brother had also lived at home while attending college.
Ruth recalls worrying she would miss out on college experiences like dorm life and football weekends. "I didn't want to stay home at all and that caused a lot of fights," she said. But she says she came to understand she had to hold up her end of the bargain.
"My parents are really understanding and cool," she said. "They're not going to give everything to me but they're going to try to make it work. Living at home, you need to understand you still live with your parents. You still need to spend time with them."
Becky Leppard advises parents to relax the rules but not end them.
"I would say, affirm to your kids that they are now adults," she said. "Recognize that, because that's what they're striving for - the recognition. Try to say, 'I'm here to help you as much as possible. And tell them, 'we are now in an advisory role, not a parental role.'"
When they're ready and able to move out, encourage them, she said. Until then: "I tell my kids I'm proud of them for choosing to be at home and not be in debt."
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