Designing Space for Today's Community College Student

America’s extensive community college system is currently on the threshold of significant change and opportunity. Enrollment has increased significantly over the past decade, creating a diverse population on these campuses with varying needs. The technological demands of the workplace are requiring increased accessibility to computer and multimedia facilities and related courses on the college campus. Community colleges are also striving to offer similar academic, cultural, and social experiences historically provided by traditional four-year institutions.

In order to meet these needs and sustain the momentum and market share that community colleges are experiencing, it takes innovation. There is great potential for community colleges to permanently step out of the shadow of four-year universities and transform themselves from being perceived as simply the “13th grade.” 

Several trends and themes have become universal. The most pressing is increasing enrollment. Rising tuition costs at four-year colleges have resulted in more recent high school graduates turning to community colleges for affordable educational alternatives. The recession has attracted many adults to the community college. These older students, ranging from their late 20s to 50s, include those who have lost their jobs or are seeking retraining in other fields and other adults who require continuing education in order to retain their employment. As soldiers return from Iraq and Afghanistan, veteran enrollment has also risen — creating other needs unique to this population such as readjusting to civilian society and a host of physical challenges resulting from military service.

This influx has created many challenges: how to accommodate this wide-ranging and growing student population, how to avoid focusing on one age group at the expense of another generation, how to address space needs to accommodate the vast numbers of new students, how to find qualified faculty to provide high-quality instruction, how to do more with less state funding, how to leverage and maintain the current enrollment boom, and how to make education more accessible. With so many issues at hand, community college leaders are wrestling with what the ideal community college looks like and whether or not it should be all things to all people.

The answers lie in employing several strategies that turn those challenges into promising opportunities. First, it is important to understand the relationship between environment and process and how both play an integral role in experience, behavior, and productivity. Collaboration with students, faculty, and administrators is required to understand their needs, processes, and goals in order to create flexible, high-quality, positive, meaningful learning environments.

Second, is to keep in mind the community college philosophy — to make education accessible to all who seek it, through more online offerings and through educational training with the overarching goal to enable student success.

Third, as a business, the community college must remain current and maintain or replace aging and outdated facilities with updated spaces that promote academic excellence; reinforce the student-focused mission and values of the community college; and provide a forum for a rich educational, social, and cultural experience.

A true understanding of each individual institution, its students, goals, and infrastructure are fundamental to providing the desired strategic results.

In discussions with community college leaders and clients I have worked with in recent years, it is clear that a key community college space is the campus library, which has become far more than a repository of books. Today’s community college students are on campus more hours than they used to be. They want places where they can study individually and spots where they can collaborate, socialize, and relax between classes. In response, the universally accessible library is taking on new roles, and on some campuses, becoming the quasi student center of the community college. Libraries are being reinvented and redesigned to provide students with a variety of services including group and individual learning areas; free computer access; writing centers, counseling, advising, and disability assistance; tutoring; technology facilities; laptop lending; distance learning support; and digital production facilities in video, audio, music, and photography. Library staff is in high demand as students increasingly seek assistance. Some community college leaders have dubbed the library “the learning commons.”

In Ohio, where community college enrollment has jumped 47 percent since 2000, several community colleges are redesigning their libraries. At Columbus State Community College, more students are participating in online classes in the college library because the library has faster online access, free printing, and reference librarians to assist with assignments. The school is also now staffing computer commons campus-wide with librarians to make support easily accessible. Terra State Community College, in Fremont, also has plans for an expanded library as part of their vision for updating facilities to meet changing needs. The library will be expanded to include additional indoor seating, outdoor seating, an atrium, dining area, bookstore, café, and computer stations. It is informally being called “the gateway” to the campus.

Redesigns of library and other on-campus facilities are necessary for community colleges to maintain enrollment after the recession subsides and people find employment again. But budgeting for a redesign, given current tight budgets and continued city and state funding cuts, requires a new way of thinking. Community colleges might begin to operate more as businesses, utilizing an entrepreneurial approach. At the White House Community College Summit, held in October 2010, private corporations were strongly urged to partner with community colleges. The goal set was to graduate an additional 5M people by 2020. That same day the Gates Foundation made a $35M grant targeting nine states, including Ohio, to increase student graduation rates.

Creating opportunistic partnerships can enable facilities to be built. Through a partnership with another local school, Owens Community College, in Toledo, OH, acquired a campus including six vacated buildings from Penta Vocational School. Founders Hall, a 35,000-sq.-ft. industrial shop building was renovated into a classroom and faculty office building. Central to the building’s design is a sky-lit gathering area with a small café to provide a warm and welcoming place for students to relax between classes. The low-cost purchase agreement was consummated in 2008. The building was redesigned into classrooms, faculty offices, and living room-like gathering space. These types of education and business collaborations may make the difference in those community colleges that continue to thrive and those that do not.

From meetings and discussions with community college leaders nationwide these themes of opportunity and challenge are consistent: changing perception, providing accessibility, raising the bar, making education affordable,  and designing spaces so that community colleges can attract and retain the best and brightest. The goal is for students to succeed through a high-quality education and not just obtain their diplomas. The ultimate result is to properly prepare them to succeed beyond community college and either move on to a four-year school or retool their skills for immediate reentry into the workforce, equipping them with the necessary skills to successfully interview and land a job. For the community college, the challenge will continue to be the ability to adapt in order to meet the needs of students and of a constantly changing workforce. In President Obama’s words, community colleges “are the unsung heroes of our American education system.”

Thomas Sens, AIA, LEED-AP, is a client leader with BHDP Architecture in Cincinnati, OH. He has worked with a number of community college clients and has served as a speaker for the Society for College and University Planning. Established in 1937, BHDP is an experiential design firm that focuses on creating environments tailored to the client firm’s culture and work process. Using cultural assessments and visioning sessions, BHDP creates workplace designs based on efficiency, effectiveness, and aesthetics that encourages employees to reach their highest levels of performance and overall company objectives. The firm also has offices in Columbus, OH, and Raleigh-Durham, NC. For further information, visit or call 513/271-1634.