A New Approach to Community College Master Planning

A well-defined campus master plan supports the long-term vision of every successful educational institution. Whether funding comes from a statewide initiative, community support or a donor, campuses must always be ready to grow or change. This is especially important for community colleges, which serve many functions based on local needs. Examples include workforce development, continuing education and corporate training. Emerging technologies and programs quickly affect each of these.

A New Approach

Distinct boundaries limit community college expansion, whereas other institutions have fewer restrictions. Private colleges and public universities often build satellite campuses wherever they deem them advantageous to enrollment increases. Consequently, community colleges have started to rethink their master planning approach by placing more emphasis on issues that attract and retain students.

First Impressions Count

When students drive onto campus, what is the first thing they see? What do passers-by on adjacent roads see? Whatever they experience creates an immediate impression. The master plan addresses this through building placement and orientation. For instance, the master plan at William Rainey Harper College in Palatine, Ill., locates a new Student Life Space and Science/Health Careers/Emerging Technologies Center on axis with the main entrance. This communicates a strong message to students and passers-by: “high tech and student-focused!”

A Sense of Place

A vibrant, attractive campus creates a place where students want to be. Administrators at Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills, Ill., wanted to create a “community of learners” concept with its master plan. Buildings and bridges form a large, U-shaped green area at the campus center. A Student Center now sits at the core. Classroom buildings create an “academic corridor” that connects student housing to the green space, while a walking path surrounds the campus.

A Concern for the Environment

A master plan also helps the campus improve environmental conditions. The master plan at the College of Lake County in Grayslake, Ill., calls for the relocation of valuable soils and plant vegetation that are native to wetland conditions. This creates more learning opportunities and ensures storm water detention compliance for all future development. The wetland project and the ecosystems it supports benefit the college and the county it serves.

Student Housing

One of the newest concepts being integrated into community college master plans is student housing. These developments attract athletes with scholarships, international students, students who live on the fringe of large districts and students who want to study unique programs offered. In all cases, housing gives students the experience of living on a campus with the cost advantages of a community college.


Building and population growth demands that administrators take parking seriously. A 15-minute walk from the parking lot to the classroom is unacceptable to the community college student, who may have a full-time job and a family. Surface parking also consumes valuable land. One solution is parking decks. They provide the necessary convenience by concentrating more parking near buildings. They also preserve land. However, decks can cost four to 10 times more per space than surface lots. Moreover, unattractive utilitarian parking decks that are not consistent with other campus buildings often impair first impressions and the sense of place.

Partnership Zones

Partnerships with communities, corporations and governmental agencies are another way in which community colleges can increase enrollment. Many master plans are taking this into consideration. For instance, in the Harper College master plan, a large body of water separates community partnership buildings from the rest of the campus. Users have their own zone and still feel like a part of the campus. Illinois Central College is planning to team with the City of East Peoria. The master plan locates a fire station at the southeast corner of the site. The college’s fire science program will use the facilities, while firefighters will participate in the educational process. The College of Lake County has provided a parcel of land for the new University Center. Twelve Illinois colleges and universities will offer programs at the facility. Everyone benefits.

Master Plans -- The Key to Campus Evolution

Ten years ago, who would have predicted that the two-year college would have evolved into the multifaceted institution it is today? We can only expect more changes -- at a faster rate. Community colleges must be ready. Architects often dub the master plan a “living document.” Like a living creature, it must grow and change to survive. This may require shifting buildings around or wiping out an outdated plan and starting over.

Although a comprehensive master plan can take six months to one year to prepare, it provides quick and dynamic responses when funding becomes available. More important, it shows in bricks and mortar how the campus responds to the college’s mission. Ben Franklin said, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing for failure.” The master plan is one way for the community college to heed this advice.

Dominick Demonica, AIA, is director of Higher Education, and Douglas Ogurek is a writer at Chicago-based Legat Architects, Inc. For more information, contact Dominick Demonica at 312/756-1247 or .

About the Authors

Douglas J. Ogurek, LEED AP BD+C, is communications manager for Legat Architects.