Schooled for Success

Redesigning the community college for 21st-century students

By Matt Bell, AIA, Sean O’Donnell, AIA, LEED AP, and Susan Shoemaker, AIA, LEED AP

Community colleges play an increasingly critical role in preparing and educating students of all ages for life in the 21st century. Whether they are teenagers entering higher education for the first time or professionals enhancing their skills to compete in the workforce, these students require new services, new spaces, and new programs. These requirements are reshaping community college campuses.

Many of the campuses were designed and built in the growth decades of the 1950s and ‘60s. To remain competitive and foster student success today and in the future, many community colleges are recalibrating their missions and putting a greater focus on access, convenience, and community engagement.

Embracing the Larger Community
Like the shopping malls of its day, the prototypical campus plan for a community college built in the 1950s or 1960s is a cluster of buildings surrounded by parking and circumscribed by a perimeter road. That approach was convenient from a transportation planning point of view, but today’s campus requires a more integrated approach to orientation, way-finding, environmental stewardship, comfort, and convenience. Access for the community college student is not simply the physical ability to drive somewhere and park. Rather, much like education itself, it is about knowing where you are going and learning how to get there in a meaningful way, physically and intellectually.

As part of a new master plan for Harper College in Palatine, IL, a new arrival sequence breaks down the visual barrier presented by the perimeter road and large parking lots, opening up the campus and reconnecting its core to the regional landscape. The new approach orients the first-time visitor to the heart of the campus, occupied by the student center, and reaches out to the surrounding community. The
moment a student arrives, whether for an initial campus visit or for the first day of classes, the campus provides a welcoming environment where landscape and architecture create a truly collegiate experience and a positive first impression.

Despite the diversity reflected in community college students—ranging from teens to seniors, some employed, some supporting families, some learning a second language—they all share a common trait. All have many competing demands on their time. The community college should respond by creating a campus where convenience enables students to focus on their larger goal: success in education and their career.

A student-centered focus repositions the relationship among the various services that the campus may offer, including administration, food, study, and support. Frequently these services are distributed in an ad hoc manner across the campus in many buildings and diverse locations. When designed with the student user in mind, on the other hand, one-stop shops can consolidate admissions, registrar, counseling, and other related services. This arrangement minimizes the amount of time a student spends confronting campus bureaucracy, which can be a barrier to higher education. Similarly, tutoring and other support service can be thought of as retail services and placed in easy-to-find locations.

Out-of-classroom time is also enhanced by convenient access to a variety of food options and places to socialize and study. Most community colleges do not offer campus housing, and many have no place outside of the library and student center for students to sit comfortably, talk, and prepare for their next class. The 21st-century campus should provide a variety of small alcoves, lounges, and study rooms along primary circulation pathways. These spaces should feature an array of seating options and provide power for technology so students can grab a cup of coffee, plug in their laptops, and use their time productively and comfortably.

Engagement: Learning about the World
For the community college student, engagement comes in many ways, from classroom instruction to practical internships, often related to work experience. Campus spaces should be designed to stimulate physical engagement with the various modes of learning, while also promoting contact with other members of the academic community, the local community, and the natural environment. In a broader sense, all aspects of the campus should help students understand what it means to be global citizens. Spatial concepts like the academic main street allow members of the campus community to engage one another on shared routes, allowing for more face-to-face contact and resulting in a greater physical presence of the educational opportunities available. In the best scenarios, a more open main street environment can also help make social interaction easier. Harper College’s new buildings weave academic and social spaces together so that the integration of formal and informal learning becomes a daily routine.

Yet, at many campuses like Harper, perimeter parking lots and buildings with few openings to the landscape can conceal or minimize engagement and the possibilities for interaction. New designs for the master plan at Harper include deliberately opening up the campus to the natural systems that surround it and providing a blueprint for a more sustainable future by eliminating many surface parking lots and shifting parking to garages adjacent to key locations throughout the campus.

Visually accessible bio-habitats throughout the campus, repurposed buildings, and planned new construction promote, at a minimum, environmental stewardship. At best, they can offer a sense of aspiration, of transcendence, of being able to advance and grow beyond the physical boundaries of the campus.

Community colleges are poised to shoulder much of the educational requirements for a more sustainable 21st century. Properly conceived and designed, the campus itself can offer a level of access, convenience, and engagement appropriate to the students’ needs and inspire them to higher levels of achievement.

Matt Bell, Sean O’Donnell, and Susan Shoemaker are colleagues at the recently merged practice of Perkins Eastman and EE&K Architects

"Schooled for Success," Learning by Design, Spring 2011