The 'Non' Is the New Norm

The nontraditional student is becoming the new face of college campuses due to a downturn in the economy, loss of jobs, greater job competition, and a desire for personal growth. A nontraditional student is a student who has not taken the traditional high school to college path. Typically, a nontraditional student is more than 25 years old, enrolled part-time, and has a spouse and sometimes children.

In some institutions, the number of nontraditional students is outweighing the number of traditional students. The 2011 National Report conducted by Complete College America states that the nontraditional student makes up 75 percent of the student body.

The trend that students are attending college later in life while having families and working full-time influences pedagogy, curriculum, and building design. To attract new students and keep up with competition, higher education institutions will need to adapt their facilities to current trends in the learning environment. Students are the driving force behind these trends, and the institutions must strive to keep up with these students’ expectations.

Designing for Comfortable and Collaborative Learning
Curriculum is evolving from independent studies to group project work. Since most nontraditional students have careers while attending school, learning from the student sitting next to you is now becoming an integral part of their learning experience. Collaboration in the classroom is a by-product of students being able to bring real-world experiences to the table rather than learning exclusively from the instructor. The massive tiered lecture halls are becoming a classroom type of the past, while more intimate, interactive classrooms are taking their place.

Collaborative learning environments are dependent on specific design elements, such as flexible seating, moveable tables, and interactive technology within the classroom. Classroom layouts must be easily reconfigurable and conducive to group discussion, as some classes will reconfigure seating arrangements up to three times per class period. In order to achieve a proper learning environment for collaboration, the movable furnishings must be user-friendly and durable. Features on moveable tables such as pivoting casters, ganging brackets, and flip-tops can help make the classroom user-friendly. Seating with adjustable, yet durable, components such as seat height, tilt, and arm height allow the student to be more comfortable during class.

Many nontraditional students attend evening classes for up to four hours after sitting at a desk for an eight-hour period, thus making it vital that they have comfortable seating. While typically more expensive, comfortable and appropriately sized mobile seating and tables can make a significant impact on a student’s learning experience.

It is also important that students have areas for collaboration outside of the classroom. Collaborative areas in public spaces on campus are essential for group teamwork. The architecture of the building can lend itself to intimate interior spaces with a sense of privacy. The bottom image on page 44 is an example of a collaboration niche in the corridor of a higher education classroom facility. If the architecture does not offer these spaces, high-back lounge pieces or movable partitions can make an impact in achieving a sense of privacy. It is also beneficial that interior finishes in these areas assist in noise reduction. Noise reduction can be achieved with proper acoustical ceiling treatments, soft floor coverings, acoustical wall panels, and lounge seating.

Incorporating Technology
As technology is being incorporated into higher education buildings, it is working hand-in-hand with the collaborative areas in and outside of the classroom. The technology within the building design is imperative for a successful learning experience, and in particular for the flexible needs of a nontraditional student. After a long workday, the nontraditional student can focus on class content and peer interaction rather than the battery life left on his or her laptop. With the nontraditional student base, it is necessary that technology is easy to access and navigate. For students, accessible power outlets to charge laptops and other portable devices are the most important piece of technology.

Media walls are another piece of technology that benefits nontraditional students, by giving them a venue through which to catch up on recent events before and after class. It is important that the technology is seamlessly integrated into the design to achieve ease-of-use and a pleasing aesthetic. Integrated technology and additional power outlets are architectural additions with a bigger price tag, but if addressed early in the design process, can have less of an impact on the overall budget.

Because group work is happening now more than ever before, many students are assigned group presentations. These presentations typically involve standing at the front of the classroom and using the instructor’s station. A central instructor’s station used by the instructor, as well as students, must be user-friendly. The instructor’s station can house a CPU, telephone, document projector, scanner, printer, lighting controls, window treatment controls, microphone, and podium. The option for a seated- and standing-height podium within the same unit is important to meet ADA needs and offer options for both instructors and students.

With the rise in online courses, some classrooms are equipped with web cameras and smartboards. The locations of such items can drastically affect the layout of classroom seating and flow.

Color Palettes and Finishes
The aesthetic preferences of the nontraditional student are paving the way for a new sophisticated design palette. Designing around school colors and mascots is no longer a primary focus. Students are now drawn to an environment that feels more professional and upscale. Refined finishes consisting of wood and stone elements, along with stylish neutrals, help to achieve the desired environment.

In regards to furnishings, the sustainable design and classic, yet fresh, elements of the progressive style are preferred among nontraditional students. Since finishes often last longer than the current trends, more timeless looks are pleasing to all tastes and invite a sense of calm. Pops of color introduced through paint and fabrics offer personality and are more cost-effective changes when trying to stay on track with or ahead of the 
latest trends.

As the nontraditional student becomes the “norm,” it is essential that higher education facilities consider their needs and expectations. Collaborative environments, user-friendly technology, and a sophisticated design aesthetic are significant components of the learning environment that appeals to the nontraditional student. These items need to be considered early in the design process, as well as budgeted for accordingly. With proactive planning, all of these items can be achieved successfully while remaining within budget. 

Bruce Hentges
is a vice president at Spellman Brady & Company, an interior planning firm specializing in healthcare, senior living, 
and higher education environments.