HACKENSACK, N.J. — Megan Byrne of Hillsdale, N.J., lived on campus her first year of college for a simple reason: She figured she would make more friends in a dorm than at her parents' house 20 minutes away.
But after freshman year, she decided to move back home for another simple reason.
It was basically just the economics, said Byrne, a sophomore at Ramapo College in Mahwah, N.J. It was too expensive.
A recent study suggests that Byrne is now in the majority. As college tuition continues to rise and students contribute more toward their education, 51 percent of American college students decided this year to live at home, compared with 43 percent in 2010, according to the student lender Sallie Mae.
The numbers make sense in light of the ever-rising cost of a college education.
Student-loan debt, which reached $867 billion, eclipsed credit-card debt for the first time in the country's history earlier this year, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
Average tuition at public four-year colleges went up 26 percent more than inflation did over the past four years. And federal aid is stagnant after years of rapid growth, according to a study released by the College Board.
It is unclear, however, how much higher costs play into students' decision to commute.
Most schools don't ask students their reasons for eschewing the dorms. And economic pressure to commute is often offset by a common understanding that the college experience is fuller for students who live on campus.
It has to be a financial decision, but if that's not the major factor, I certainly would advocate living on campus, said Courtney McAnuff, vice president for enrollment management at Rutgers University. It's a very important part of the growth of the students.
Commuter students also need to factor in hidden costs of living off campus. Besides fuel and parking, commuter students often take longer to graduate than their peers in the dorms, McAnuff and other administrators said.
There isn't a lot of research that ties trends in college commuting with the economy, said John Rury, a University of Kansas professor who studied the rising number of American commuter students from 1960 to 1980. That increase had more to do with the expansion of the American middle class and more students being able to afford college, he said.
The present-day statistics are difficult to decipher because researchers don't know how many students are traditional college students living at home to save money and how many are commuting for other reasons, including working adults who return to school for job skills when they are worried about impending layoffs.
The on-campus population could be shielded from dips tied to the recession because the economic downturn had a disproportionate impact on families with lower levels of education, who are less likely to send children to residential institutions. In addition, federal financial aid and student loans generally make it possible for students to pay for on-campus housing despite their family's financial situation, he said.