Gain Student Input for Better Campus Buildings

As enrollment at community colleges across the nation continues to increase, administrators are faced with the challenge of transforming the physical learning environment to fit the needs of both traditional and non-traditional students.

The makeup of today’s community college student base is more diverse than ever:
  • Professionals in their 40s to 60s that have been pushed back into the classroom as the result of layoffs.
  • Recent veterans of the Armed Forces are taking advantage of the GI Bill to continue their educations.
  • More traditional students, by virtue of their parents’ decreased investment income as result of the recession, have reassessed college plans.
  • Mature students that face daily realities of full-time jobs and childcare.

Though widely diverse, the common thread with the current crop of community college students is that they demand more of the college experience than any preceding generation. They are wireless, connected, possibly accustomed to larger facilities, demand a variety of curriculum offerings, and expect that technology is readily available 24/7.

According to Marguerite Dummer, dean of Hennepin Technical College, “A collaborative approach was put into remodeling [our] campus buildings. We sought input from other programs as to what equipment was crucial and a lot of thought was put into to anticipating future needs and expansion. We have received very positive feedback from students that the investment was worth it, and that it showed a commitment to the [nursing] program.”

Providing a high-quality educational experience for a diverse group of students, meeting academic goals, and staying within budget means that administrators, campus planners, and architects need to optimize new construction projects and maximize existing space.

With such a wide range of expectations to fulfill, an atmosphere of inclusion and consensus building must prevail before any major construction or remodeling project can move forward. Otherwise, the college runs the risk of alienating current and future enrollees.

Consensus Building: 
Ask. Don’t Tell.
Be sure to involve all stakeholders in the discovery process at the outset of a project. This will surely include faculty and staff, but it should also include students, local businesses, and potentially, voters needed to approve funding. From simple surveys to focus group interviews, early buy-in establishes a solid foundation for success.

Gaining Meaningful 
Student Input
Campuses continually struggle with how to gain meaningful input from students. With a strong belief in the importance of student engagement, but unclear how to capture meaningful input for their new Student Union, California State University Channel Islands (CSUCI) challenged their architect to develop a methodology to gain information and insight from the student body. 

Working closely with University representatives, the architect set up stations on campus to facilitate “man-on-the-street” interviews. Over the course of two days, image/vision boards were set up in strategic, high-traffic locations where ongoing presentations were made and staff from both the architectural firm and the University used surveys to solicit information from more than 150 students.

Not only did the students provide insight about their priorities for the Student Union, the process also generated excitement about the project. The students’ input directly informed the program confirmation process and the ultimate project phasing approach.

We Have the Input… Now What?
Once student input has been received, a comprehensive planning effort should follow. Colleges are in an ideal position to qualitatively and quantitatively respond to actual and anticipated space needs. Surprisingly, the response may not always involve major renovation or new construction.

The first step is to make the best of what’s available and maximize use of existing space. This process involves looking for ways to improve the overall educational experience. It’s also an opportune time for community colleges to focus efforts on student retention.

For-profit universities are an increasingly attractive option for many students in today’s economic environment. However, community colleges are uniquely positioned to harness the physical environment to address many underlying issues students bring to the educational setting and support students through certificate completion. This can be accomplished through a number of ways:

Connectivity — A learning environment that fosters more connections benefits students, faculty, and staff alike. As more learning continues to occur outside the classroom, administrators can harness social learning by providing an environment conducive to interaction. Adjacency is a key element of such areas; clustering classrooms or faculty/researcher offices with technology and comfortable workspaces can encourage debriefing, project work, and greater access to services.

Cost Effectiveness — Because enrollment, pedagogy, and technology will all change over time, plan for the evolution with spaces that are easy to upgrade and expand. Interior “soft construction” walls can be easily reconfigured or eliminated. In lab spaces, soft walls are ideal for use around equipment that is sure to change more rapidly than the lab itself. For exterior walls, consider future expansions and configure the space accordingly.

Transparency — A simple material choice of glass over drywall can open a student’s eyes to classes and entire programs. Making spaces more transparent not only exposes students to courses and resources, it also provides another way to connect people to their surroundings. This can be especially important for first-generation students who don’t have the benefit of previous family member experience to inform their decision-making.

Utilization — It is easy to be lured into thinking solely of student count when it comes to utilization rates. While it may be tempting to reassign existing support spaces for teaching areas, or to move a class online, the focus should be on implementing the right response to the need. There are many ways to increase utilization of the physical environment, but a few of the key factors are:

Flexibility — Learning increasingly occurs in spaces not officially labeled as a classroom. Spaces must support multiple types of pedagogies, student needs, and learning activities (discussion, experiential learning, reflection, etc.). Furnishings like moveable, writeable wall partitions can provide quick and temporary solutions.

Responsiveness — According to the Council for Educational Facility Planners International, classrooms are three to five percent of a typical four-year college’s space portfolio, and only 7.7 percent of student learning occurs in classrooms during the daylight hours. By thinking about spaces differently, it is possible to capture non-classroom space to support teaching and learning. A wireless campus turns nooks and corners into private work areas. An unassigned workroom with a “hot desk” is perfect for a visiting professor.

Standards — Implementing space and technology standards levels the classroom playing field. Faculty will be less likely to develop a favorite room when the layout and amenities are consistent. Uniform technology platforms provide familiarity between rooms, so no time is lost learning the system.

Technology — Campuses can better support distance learning by integrating technology with the room configuration. This could entail enabling faculty from around the world at the touch of a button, small classes that can achieve economies of scale by videoconferencing with one professor, and satellite learning centers in outlying areas (such as a suburban strip mall) that may be more accessible for some students.

Any campus construction or remodeling project is a serious proposition, not only in budgetary terms, but also how it affects the education experience for students. Taking the time to understand the needs of an ever-changing student base, and understanding their wants and desires, can pay long-term dividends of increased enrollment and retention, and financial stability for the institution. 

Jeffrey Fenimore, AIA, is a principal for DLR Group, an interdisciplinary design firm providing architecture, engineering, planning, and interior design to a diverse group of public and private sector clients, particularly higher education.