By Robin Suttell
The American college campus is in a state of flux. Changing expectations of stakeholders, keeping pace with an ever-evolving technological world, and the competitive nature of admissions and recruitment departments are shaping the future direction of higher-education campuses and their facilities.
“It’s a changing landscape,” says Christopher Ahoy, president at Alexandria, VA-based Association of Higher Education Facilities Officers (APPA) and associate vice president for facilities at Iowa State University in Ames, IA. “The world is changing, and it is affecting campuses.”
Higher-education campus and facilities experts are putting their heads together to discuss where the campus of the future is headed in terms of facilities design and management.
In July, higher-education professionals gathered in Honolulu to take part in “The Campus of the Future: A Meeting of the Minds,” a first-of-its-kind joint conference comprised of three leading associations that serve higher education (APPA; the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of College and University Business Officers [NACUBO]; and the Society for College and University Planning [SCUP], Ann Arbor, MI).
More than 4,000 people attended the conference from all types of institutions and fields of work - facilities, planning, student affairs, faculty, and IT, to name a few. Other attendees included those who support the academic enterprise (architects, developers, and many more).
The event served as both a formal exchange and informal dialogue between three parties of critical decision-makers to address strategic issues facing the future of higher education. The subject of facilities played a big role in the forum.
“The American university and system of higher learning have evolved drastically since the 1940s with the advent of the GI Bill and folks coming back from the war,” notes Wendell Brown, an architect at Nashville, TN-based Earl Swensson Associates, who presented his firm’s higher-education study, Vision 2020: A Look Into the Future of Higher Education (a series of roundtable discussions with leaders of Tennessee’s higher-education community) at The Campus of the Future meeting.
“The way we manage our facilities and the way we work with our stakeholders - parents, students, faculty and staff, the community at large - is really changing,” says APPA Executive Vice President E. Lander Medlin.
The first challenge that higher-education institutions face in this changing landscape is attracting the best and brightest students, faculty, and staff. And, believe it or not, facilities play a supporting role in the effort to attract and retain the best of the best.
The campus and its facilities are the face of the institutions. “Between 26 and 27 percent of students attend a school because they like the campus, not the programs,” Ahoy says. “If they don’t like the facilities and amenities, they’ll walk.”
Traditional students (ages 18 to 22) entering college today are of a different breed than those who attended 20 years ago; so are their parents (who pay the bills). They are far more discriminating and have higher expectations for luxury and comfort amenities as a norm - not just in residence halls, but campus-wide. “They want a resort-like campus,” Brown says.
Today’s college student (and those yet to enroll) want more than a small dorm room with a pair of bunk beds, three roommates, a shared restroom, and a campus-run cafeteria as the only dining option.
They aren’t toting electric typewriters and small black-and-white TVs to furnish their rooms. They have sophisticated notebook computers, surround-sound speakers, and plasma TVs. Most have had comfort at home and demand it of their campus environment as well.
New residence halls are like miniature apartments, featuring separate single-student sleeping areas that open up into common living areas. The traditional dorm room is fast becoming a dinosaur - so much so that Iowa State University’s facilities department razed two dated, 11-story residence halls and replaced them with smaller, intimate, modern facilities with 2,000 beds and all of the comforts of home. Institutions like Iowa State are turning more toward the private sector to provide housing for students.
“We reduced the number of available housing,” Ahoy says, noting that, of the 27,000 students attending the university, between 10,000 and 14,000 live in on-campus housing at any given time.
The concept of amenities carries into the campus as a whole. Student centers are cushier, learning spaces are more flexible and collaborative, and commercialism has taken root.
As much as the concept of institutional loyalty is bandied about in higher-ed circles, today’s pool of students are good at comparison shopping - they’ll see which college has the best technology, the best buildings, and the best on-campus eateries (those eateries need to reach beyond the campus-managed cafeteria). These students want brand names.
“Higher-education institutions are really taking their cues from the commercial aspect of our society,” Brown says. “Students are expecting it and demanding it. Dining facilities are becoming food courts. Student lounges are becoming Starbucks shops.”
In fact, Brown calls this push of commercial branding into the higher-ed arena the “Starbucks effect.” Even the Iowa State library has a Starbucks café inside, Ahoy notes, helping draw students into the library. With the advent of the Internet and tools such as Google and Wikipedia, traditional use of campus libraries has shifted. While they still house collections and Internet access, they have evolved into gathering places for quiet study. It all comes down to expectations and technology.
Technology - along with new expectations - is reshaping how campus facilities function and how infrastructure is being designed for now and the future.
Today’s media-savvy students, faculty, and staff crave the best, fastest, most cutting-edge technology. According to APPA Immediate Past President Jack Colby, assistant vice chairman for facilities operations at North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC, implementation of technology is a significant factor for the future of higher-education institutions in attracting students and faculty.
“Technology is one of the driving forces, and is certainly one that people are struggling with the most,” Colby says, noting that the rapidly expiring shelf life of modern technology presents logistical and financial challenges in terms of long-term capital-planning initiatives.
But, there are things that need to be addressed in the short term - namely Internet access. High-speed DSL lines are a want, a need, and a requirement at nearly all institutions.
“Students now are extremely demanding in what they are looking for technology-wise,” Colby says. “They have become used to this in their pre-college environments. Any atmosphere that’s a step down from where they’ve been is not going to be viewed as favorable in the selection process.”
What’s better than wired DSL? Wi-Fi. It’s the future, and already has started to infiltrate campuses nationwide. “More or less, the whole campus is wireless now,” Ahoy says of Iowa State.
Technology also drives how learning spaces are designed. Learning styles and teaching methods are more collaborative, focusing on small groups and electronic media rather than the large lecture halls of the past.
“If we’re using old (or even current) classroom design standards in renovating existing buildings or building new ones, they will be obsolete or behind the curve the day they open,” Colby says.
The modern campus has evolved exponentially over the years in terms of facilities - they’re more comfortable, they're more wired, and they’re more like home.
But, where does it go from here? Does it keep evolving or is there a stopping point? Professionals have started to raise questions about the level of amenities and services offered on American campuses: How much further can these expand into the future?
Have colleges and universities already gone too far by providing the study body with a too-comfortable, amenities-laden experience? Brown says that some higher-education professionals fear this might be the case.
“We presented our Vision 2020 study in Syracuse, NY, and the audience was asking if we have reached that point of no return,” he says. “In the real world, people don’t really live that way. What are we telling our youth when we are sending them to resorts to learn, but the real-world workplace is much different? Do we need to re-evaluate?”
The other raging conflict stems from the juxtaposition of tradition vs. innovation. In order to remain current and competitive, it’s sometimes necessary to alter long-standing tradition. However, tradition has deep roots in the higher-education culture.
“Do we keep things the same to support tradition or do we allow the customer and the marketplace to drive what we do and what we look like?” Colby asks. “It’s a healthy debate: How do you maintain the traditions and things people remember about their time on campus and still meet the expectations of the new generations?”
Robin Suttell, based in Cleveland, is former contributing editor at Buildings magazine.