If I had enrolled in my local state university back in the US, I would have moved a mere 20-minute drive away. Still, the convenience of living on campus would have won me over, as the holistic and lively campus experience would have justified the price of the dorm for me. 

Students of the GTA are not so lucky as to be able to choose between the two convenient and attractive options I was presented with. According to U of T’s 2022–2023 Enrolment Report, out of the 19,647 new full-time and part-time undergraduates joining U of T in fall 2022, 8,228 students were from the GTA. Should these students choose to commute, students at the edges of the GTA would be looking at an up to two-hour commute to and from campus

Living on campus is not even a guaranteed alternative. Combining the data from residence websites, U of T can only seem to house around 16 per cent of the St. George undergraduate population on campus. The first-year residence guarantee doesn’t even secure you a spot on campus, with alternative off-campus housing like Parkside and CampusOne capturing overflow. These additional housing options come with higher prices and further distances to campus, making commuting a more attractive option.

U of T is making some progress in addressing the issue by constructing the Oak House Residence. However, housing 508 students — currently about 1.08 per cent of UTSG’s undergraduate student population — is only a dent in the glaring issue. 

Commuting, especially given the extreme distances that some students go to avoid the exorbitant downtown rent, is known to have adverse effects on student mental health. In a 2023 study about commuter students’ well-being, University of North Carolina at Pembroke researchers state that it “is clear that being a commuter student leads to increased risk of psychological distress… lowered academic success… and lower levels of belongingness to the campus.” 

I believe commuters are, in essence, the original constituents of U of T: the primary beneficiaries of the school’s purpose. In its early years, U of T’s primary commitment has been to its local students, whom they currently fail to provide for. The university’s commitment to inclusion is also hampered by its lack of support for commuters, many of whom are put in that position by financial or personal constraints beyond their control. 

The lack of support is clear through U of T’s graduation rates — in 2020–2021, 77.1 per cent of U of T students graduated in six years — and which lag significantly behind similarly ranked public universities like the University of Michigan, which had a graduation rate of about 93 per cent for the same cohort and the same time frame. I believe the school’s policies allow for this to continue. 

When taking leaves of absence, U of T requires international students to submit formal requests with clearly defined reasons. The school is much more flexible with domestic students, to a concerning degree, stating that “All Faculty of Arts & Science students in good academic standing or on academic probation may take a voluntary leave from studies without formal authorization.”

If a student is struggling with financial or mental health issues, or the stresses of commuting, and decides to take a period of time off from school — or a permanent withdrawal that begins as temporary — U of T seems to make no effort to follow up or look after the student as domestic students don’t require specific documentation or approval to take a voluntary leave. 

Students who are struggling most and would benefit the most from the university’s resources are also those who may be least likely to reach out. Mental health conditions are highly comorbid — that is, they occur together. With the prevalence of social anxiety and the negative motivational effects of depression, struggling students, especially our commuters who also experience the extra burdens of travel, may likely have a difficult time reaching out. 

I believe that a simple, auto-approved form declaring a purpose for a leave of absence would not only be valuable data for a research university like U of T but also allow for better-targeted outreach for student well-being. U of T would have information that would enable it to reach out to students who are struggling the most, those who are least likely to reach out, and those who may benefit from the university’s resources. This would be a marginal effort that may save many university careers.

Of course, many of the issues commuters face are not immediately solvable by U of T. The university cannot single-handedly fix the affordable housing crisis that downtown Toronto is facing, but it can and should do better with its policies and outreach efforts to care for the domestic and especially commuter students that comprise the heart of the school. 

Currently, there are many resources for commuters at U of T, but they vary widely between campuses, colleges, and faculties. The resources provide helpful amenities but often have sparse programming that provides occasional aid and not the day-to-day support needed for the struggles of commuters.

In addition to the leave of absence policies, I believe U of T needs to do more for commuters who are vulnerable to mental health struggles. Many US schools have programs like the University of Southern California’s Student Well-being Index Survey. In some of these programs, students who are identified as at risk for mental health concerns are automatically connected with resources — in one case I know about personally, within 10 minutes. Universities can provide a follow-up with an appointment with a professional, making for an effective outreach program that alleviates the barriers to access that many students face. 

Implementing a similar strategy would not only be valuable data for a research university that frequently seeks out data on its students but also help U of T to achieve its stated methodology of improving student mental health through research outlined in its Student Mental Health Initiative

In terms of affordable transit to directly support commuters, the UTM Student Union has the U-Pass program, through which students have access to free transit to ease the burden of commuting or otherwise travelling around the city. There is no equivalent for St. George or UTSG students, a shortcoming the university should remedy. 

Commuters are the lifeblood of U of T and are disproportionately at risk for poor mental health. Although many of the issues they face are systemic and out of the school’s hands, I think the university can still do more to support these students who are foundational to U of T’s essence.

Max Zhang is a first-year student at Woodsworth College, studying computer science. He is the Mental Health columnist for The Varsity’s Comment section.