Design based priorities surrounding the workplace, recreation and residential living have already shifted to a greater focus on well-being, human interaction, flexibility, diversity and accessibility. While these trends continue to transform commercial real-estate, higher education is increasingly following suit. From keeping up with technology to ensuring campus safety, institutional leaders are prudently evaluating where and when to update their campus infrastructure.  Rethinking assumptions of space allocation and utilization in light of cost concerns, aesthetic appeal and sustainability, EDSA Principals Kona Gray and Michael Batts share tips that will ensure institutions are evolving along with the changing needs of academia.

Q: While a majority of parents anticipate their children will attend college, many are apprehensive about their transition into higher-ed. What will make them/us feel more at ease?

“As a parent currently exploring college options for my daughter, we are most definitely asking the proverbial question – Do we feel comfortable leaving our child on this campus? In my experience, universities that mindfully balance amenities of convenience, safety, physical comfort, psychological well-being and aesthetics outrank others with similar academic offerings. Well-maintained and organized features such as convenient parking, ample green space and well-lit, walkable streetscapes are real differentiators when it comes to the comfort and welfare of our children,” shares Gray.

Q: With states like Florida seeing a $100 million decrease in higher-education funding, how can institutions enhance their facilities with a limited budget?

“Short-term budget restrictions should never cloud decisions with long-term benefits. Leaders must holistically evaluate improvements and align phasing alternatives with cost conscious budgets. As a baseline, every choice should be weighed on social, environmental and economic benefits for the health of students and the university. Are spaces flexible in use for hybrid learning? Do they cater to both large groups and individual experiences? Do they aid in energy efficiency that result in long-term savings? Are surroundings programmed to encourage on-campus living as opposed to lost off-campus revenue? Creative thinking and sound reasoning are necessary when prioritizing upgrades,” asserts Batts.

Q: According to a study by the Babson Survey Research Group, 30 percent of students are enrolled in at least one remote learning course. How can institutions embrace the move towards online learning?

“An increase in today’s virtual student population certainly requires new strategies. Enticing learners to be part of a campus culture requires the adoption of hybrid learning experiences that willfully integrate technology while actively encouraging socialization, collaboration and sense of community. Programs with forums and venues where students can engage with fellow classmates and faculty do well in student retention and academic performance. Likewise, amenitized campus resources inspired by those found in hospitality such as cabanas for studying and resort-style lounging areas offer respite from the stress of academia and everyday life,” suggests Batts.

Q: Identified as a top stressor heading into the 2023/2024 school year, mental health is a topic that remains top-of-mind. From a planning standpoint, what can universities do to help?

“In the book ‘Forest Bathing’, the Japanese Art of Shinrin-Yoku, author Dr. Qing Li demonstrates how spending time in nature reduces blood pressure, lowers stress, eases depression and boosts the immune system while improving concentration and memory. Simply stated, good mental health aligns with more time spent outdoors. Consider Duke University, which is known as the ‘university in a forest’. With tree canopies covering 60 percent of their campus, they set a great example for institutions who are looking to make a positive impact on the well-being of their students and the environment,” explains Gray.

Q: While many students apply to a college based on their major of choice, aesthetics also play a role. That said, what is the secret to a quality design?

“Among the criteria used by US News and World Report in curating their ‘Best National Universities’ list are quality of academic programs, graduation rates, cost, school spirit and alumni giving. An additional deciding factor is ‘how a campus makes us feel’. When an institution’s infrastructure and campus are cared for and designed to be purposeful and safe, we relate such qualities with the school itself. While it’s important for a campus to be welcoming, it must also be hyper-focused on the needs of users while integrating itself within the surrounding environment and community for a memorable impact,” says Batts.

Q: Think Impact states that 40 percent of students across the U.S. drop out of college prior to graduation. How can campus planning and design assist with enhancing student retention?

“Over the years, data driven methods have been utilized to support student retention. This has included easing students into college via ‘gateway courses’ and monitoring progress via high tech tracking systems. While effective, a more common-sense approach to retention exists within a university’s campus plan. A roadmap for success, these plans have the power guide future development and provide opportunities for improving studently life and faculty engagement. Long-range master planning efforts analyze broader level conditions, capacities and trends related to the student population with outcomes and catalyst projects that can positively impact retention and future enrollment. These efforts often incorporate flexibility, connectivity, safety, community connection and intuitive learning as design pillars,” concludes Gray.

While there is no question that a campus must adapt to the needs of future scholars, cultivating a positive learning environment must be based on an understanding of infrastructure, design and smart management practices to ensure a positive, fruitful student experience. For more expert insights, along with additional information on our campus planning experience, contact us at [email protected].