Campus Architecture

Revolutionizing Community College Success

By Eric Skiba

Community colleges play a crucial role in promoting educational equity and opportunity. However, they face numerous challenges that hinder student success, such as declining enrollment, low transfer rates, and disproportionately impacting marginalized communities. Addressing these issues requires innovative solutions, and architects can provide novel design approaches to help tackle these pressing challenges.

The pandemic has exacerbated the problem of declining enrollment in community colleges, leading to significant decreases in transfer rates and hindering educational attainment. Additionally, the housing crisis disproportionately affects students, with many experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity, which further impedes their academic achievements.

The normalization of online learning during the pandemic has also impacted on-campus attendance. The introduction of the General Exchange, an online portal allowing students to access classes from various districts without physical attendance, has contributed to this shift. Furthermore, convincing potential students of the value of education has become increasingly complex, especially for those who started working hourly jobs or careers during the pandemic and are wary of leaving their current situations and incurring debt. Nationwide, undergraduate enrollment dropped by eight percent between 2019 and 2022.

Regions like California’s Bay Area have experienced significant gentrification and displacement due to housing prices, reducing the potential student population. Additionally, colleges are dealing with increased mental health issues among students, and staff often lack the resources or training to address these problems effectively.

Basic needs such as bathing and laundry are also challenges for many students. Non-profits often provide portable facilities on campuses, but regular access to food and the internet still needs to be improved. Some students are on campus from opening to closing due to a lack of housing. Constantly moving and needing more documentation can make enrollment difficult, increase absenteeism, and elevate emotional challenges, further detracting from their studies.

State officials and the Chancellor’s office are working to enact policy changes to address enrollment and transfer challenges, but these initiatives often fall short. Traditional approaches to student housing lack comprehensive support structures, leaving colleges unable to adequately address the complex needs of unhoused students. Many of today’s challenges extend beyond the educational system’s capacity to resolve. Historically, community college enrollments fluctuated with the economy, but current challenges surpass these historical trends.

Architects can offer innovative design solutions tailored to the unique needs of community colleges. Architects can foster a sense of belonging and support student success by creating inclusive, collaborative spaces. Multi-use facilities optimize resources, maximizing funding impact. Strategic campus planning enhances accessibility and promotes community engagement, which is essential for student retention and achievement. Architects must listen and remain flexible, as needs may differ from initial expectations. Inclusive spaces supporting socialization are vital for fostering ownership and a sense of place.

For instance, HMC Architects collaborated with institutions like Palomar College in San Marcos, California, and Sierra College in Rocklin, California, to implement transformative design projects. At Palomar College, the Anita and Stan Maag Food and Nutrition Center addresses food insecurity with a dignified, student-centered approach. Meanwhile, the Sierra College New Instructional Building fosters interdisciplinary collaboration and community building, promoting student success beyond the classroom. Strategic campus planning at Palomar included resolving campus circulation problems and significantly enhancing the student experience by integrating existing features like the arboretum into the primary campus.

MiraCosta Community College District hired HMC to design their new Media Arts Center at the Oceanside, California, Campus. By re-evaluating programmatic elements and creatively utilizing space, HMC could allocate an additional 1,100 square feet for a new collaboration hub, creating a light-filled space that fosters the intended collaborations and communities.

Implementing architectural solutions can be challenging due to funding constraints, institutional resistance, and logistical complexities. Overcoming these barriers requires prioritizing investment in innovative design strategies, advocating for policy reforms, and fostering interdisciplinary collaboration between architects, educators, and policymakers. Identifying and prioritizing needs, securing funding, adhering to public spending requirements, and managing projects can be overwhelming, often requiring outside management assistance.

To initiate meaningful change, community colleges must prioritize partnerships with architectural firms experienced in addressing educational institutions’ unique needs. Establishing task forces to assess campus infrastructure and develop strategic plans for renovation and expansion is crucial. Advocating for increased state funding and policy reforms supporting architectural interventions is essential for long-term success. Building long-term relationships with architectural firms while fostering new ideas and dialogues is critical for progress.

Adopting architectural solutions for educational equity and excellence in community colleges has long-term benefits and significant potential impacts. Architects are trained to understand the social implications of space and can design environments with profound social impact, particularly in the context of recent social distancing.

Architects offer a transformative vision for educational equity and excellence in confronting community colleges’ multifaceted challenges. By embracing innovative design solutions, institutions can create inclusive, supportive environments conducive to student success, ensuring all learners can thrive and achieve their educational goals.

Eric Skiba, AIA, LEED AP, Assoc. DBIA, is a Principal in Charge at HMC Architects. With over 25 years of dedicated professional experience, Eric excels in elevating educational experiences for students and faculty within California’s academic institutions.