Building a Better Campus

Community colleges have long been accustomed to doing more with less. Limited funding is a constant pressure, as is the physical learning environment — which can be manipulated to accommodate burgeoning enrollment. However, with a focus on design, the learning environment can be transformed to engage learners and instructors alike, providing what the college needs and can afford, while giving students what they want.

While some colleges “get by” with inexpensive solutions such as portables, this type of short-term thinking can negatively impact the quality of a learning environment. Additionally, it could affect the recruiting and retention of students and faculty in the long term.

Design provides administrators with a readily available tool to proactively create affordable and optimal learning environments. More than ever, colleges are focusing on design and wise planning as a way to address the growing numbers of traditional and non-traditional learners.

Ever-shrinking state and federal funding for higher education have only compounded the issue and forced many institutions to make tough choices regarding program offerings, faculty positions, and student assistance. Some have even faced the previously unthinkable specter of turning away students.

While increased enrollment is widely regarded as a positive development, understanding ways to manage the influx of additional students, providing a high-quality educational experience, meeting academic goals, and staying within budget requires administrators and architects to minimize new construction and maximize existing space.

To understand the solution, colleges must first grasp how the changing face of the student population, higher expectations of the educational experience, and funding shortages will affect building design, remodeling, and construction in the future.

More Students, More Diversity, Higher Expectations

By many measures, the educational landscape has dramatically changed and enrollment is surging at community and technical colleges across the United States. In fact, in its March 2009 survey of community college presidents, the League for Innovation in the Community College and The Campus Computing Project reported that 86 percent of respondents saw increased full-time enrollment from one year ago. More than 75 percent saw increased enrollment in workforce development programs, and another 62 percent witnessed an upswing in reverse transfer students from four-year colleges.

But statistics only paint half a picture when it comes to understanding today’s overall enrollment increase at community colleges. Not only are there more students, they are more diverse than ever:

  • The recent economic recession forced significant numbers of 40- to 60-year-olds back into the classroom, many of whom are interested in occupational programs like dental hygiene and computer-aided design. 
  • For Armed Forces veterans, the generous new benefits of the GI Bill provide an excellent opportunity to continue their education.
  • For more traditional students, community colleges are seen as the most economically viable higher-education option during tough economic times.
  • Other students face daily realities of jobs, childcare, health concerns, and transportation issues, all competing for time with education.

According to Maureen Dawson of the University of the Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC), today’s students want academic support, a sense of community at the school, and help with transition to the workforce. “UNMC is seeing broader student demographics because the average age is increasing,” she says.

The current generation of students may demand more of the university experience than any preceding generation. Students today are wireless, completely connected, accustomed to larger and more specialized facilities, desire diverse curriculum offerings, and demand that technology is readily available and at their fingertips.

“In short, community colleges are facing an onslaught of new students asking them to provide — at higher levels than ever before — access to college, English-language instruction, continuing education, professional development, contract services, vocational education, worker retraining, and upper-division collegiate programs,” according to Arthur E. Levine, president of Teachers College of Columbia University in New York City.

Funding Shortages

Even as student enrollment and needs increase, funding is declining. According to a report from the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, between 1984 and 2009, full-time enrollment at two- and four-year colleges increased by nearly 47 percent, to more than 10.8M students. In that time, per-student state appropriations for higher education remained relatively stable, increasing just less than five percent, after adjusting for inflation, to $6,931. Yet the 2009 level of per-student appropriations is 13 percent below what states provided to colleges in 2001, when higher education budgets were at a high point, the report says.

Colleges Respond to Trends

The old saying is that people don’t plan to fail, they fail to plan. Community and technical colleges are no exception. Spending the necessary time before the first line of the design of a new or renovated facility is drawn will result in maximizing the return on capital dollars spent and, potentially, spending less.

If an integrated facilities master plan isn’t already in place for a campus or institution, building projects merely react to immediate needs. A proactive strategy focuses on the big picture and outlines a long-term campus vision. Basic components of a proactive, strategic master plan should include: 

  • Vision. What is the preferred future of your institution?
  • An academic plan. What is your institution’s educational philosophy and how should your spaces best respond? Don’t limit thinking solely to classrooms, which amount to only 10 to 15 percent of total campus space.
  •  A strategic plan. When and how will new spaces be integrated into service delivery?
  • Infrastructure assessment. What spaces are already in place, what’s the cost to maintain them, and how do these spaces align with projected student enrollment?
  • Basic data. What is the rough size and cost of anticipated facilities, and the priority of each?

By considering facilities holistically, and in the context of the greater institutional vision, administrators and architects can develop tools to define the necessary action items. For example, plotting existing and projected enrollment against existing and projected facility operations and maintenance costs can pinpoint when the deferred maintenance of a facility will outpace the cost to replace the facility.

Similarly, other tools can help administrators objectively make decisions about how capital dollars are best spent. One such tool, an Energy Usage Model, assesses utility usage by facility or campus-wide, and can further be broken down by resource type (electricity, steam, water, etc.). Planners can then target projects that are the largest energy consumers for efficiency retrofits, reassignment, or demolition. This can produce immediate, bottom-line benefits for stretching operational budgets.

Programming – Define, Then Design

Programming is a valuable process that can vet presumed
facility needs and uncover the root cause of space problems. The true value becomes apparent when credence is given to the programming process and it is executed in full.

The three key parts of a program include:

  1. Departmental program — a preliminary site investigation accompanied by space unit diagrams that illustrate space shortages and inefficiencies.
  2. Adjacency strategies — observations and interviews with faculty, staff, and students that lend insight to actual usage and preferences of how spaces work together.
  3. Existing facility capabilities — consider the facility age as well as size and layout. A science lab built in the 1940s might be less expensive to repurpose for an alternative educational need than bring up to current standards for science.

Programming is playing a larger role in projects. The Society of College and University Planners (SCUP) estimates future construction will be 90 percent renovation and 10 percent new construction (vs. their historical breakdown of 60 percent renovation and 40 percent new). Shortchanging the programming process could result in unnecessary and costly infrastructure or technology upgrades, as well as oversight of available areas.

Winston Churchill once said that we shape our buildings,and thereafter, they shape us. In the face of enrollment increases, greater student diversity, changing pedagogical trends, and increased maintenance and operational costs, many community colleges are facing considerable burdens. But there is a solution, if campus administrators ensure the physical environment meets not just the needs for space, but also the needs for learning from an ever-changing student base. 

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.


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