Perspectives 10.31.2019

The Future of Higher Education Planning

By Stephen Coulston, Principal, AIA, in our Austin studio
OKC Innovation Disctrict
The Core of the OKC Innovation District serves as a gathering place uniting the community.
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

How has the approach to higher education planning changed in recent years?

Planning for higher education today is much easier, or harder, depending on your perspective. Over the past several years, colleges and universities across the country have undergone a fundamental behavioral shift, becoming more focused on student experiences and successful outcomes. The traditional collegiate paradigm is vertically organized, departmentally siloed, and institutionally centered. Campus design has all too often followed historic campus growth patterns, and, in many cases, resulted in single-use programs and buildings. The student is left to figure out the system rather than the system being designed to achieve the most successful outcomes for the student.

The new paradigm centers on student experience, focuses on student success, and may result in a hybrid approach to programs, buildings, and the spaces in between. Consider the recent meteoric rise in interdisciplinary programs and the buildings that support them, the shift as libraries reinvent themselves to learning commons, and the transformation of traditional dormitories to student living-learning commons. This change represents the acknowledgement that between 70 percent and 80 percent of all learning occurs outside the classroom.

For the designers among us embracing today’s view of the student, we see unbridled opportunity to create places and spaces that encourage learning, foster community, and focus on human experience. We find ourselves designing buildings that allow for students and faculty to engage with each other, laboratory spaces that put the sciences on display, welcoming and sustainable outdoor open spaces, and hospitable places for students to congregate, share experiences, and build community.

Clemson Classroom
Integration of technology across classrooms and common spaces supports the ever changing student learning experience.
Clemson University, Clemson, South Carolina
Clemson Branding
Placemaking unifies the campus community.
Clemson University, Clemson, South Carolina

What are today’s priorities? What do students want? What do administrators want?

Higher education has become an increasingly competitive environment. If student success is the measuring rod, then prioritizing investments to achieve the best possible student outcomes is crucial. Knowing your audience is critical.

Students today are sophisticated consumers, and they want their products customized and personalized. They value freedom and choice in everything they do. They demand integrity and openness and scrutinize everything. They have grown up as digital natives, they expect constant innovation, and they want it fast. They want to collaborate, but on their terms. They blur the lines between entertainment, play, education, work, and leisure.

To appeal to this audience, each administration must ensure that its institution is uniquely differentiated among its competitors. Brand recognition is paramount, and we are seeing this translate from the online space of universities to the branded environments of the campus buildings and grounds. Technology investments are critical and technology requires retraining, as well as investments in recruitment and retention of the best and brightest faculty. This is expensive. Unfortunately for the administrator, this is occurring at time when we are seeing increasingly diminishing support and investment in public higher education. And as costs are passed on to the student, we are seeing an understandable public outcry over skyrocketing student loan debt. This is, and will continue to be, a challenge to both the administration and the student.

NeoCity Plaza
Even as an off-campus district, NeoCity's support of research and technology development uplifts the region and supports the University of Central Florida's partnerships.
NeoCity, Kissimmee, Florida

Much has been said about designing for millennials. What about Gen Z? Is too much attention being paid to generational preferences that are only likely to change? How do you make long range plans for that kind of possible change?

Millennials have provided great fodder for debate, conjecture, and hypothesis over the last many years, and today we are seeing how that generation is reshaping our dialogue about what really matters. No less consideration should be given to Gen Z. We have long been impacted by societal influences and change, so we must pay special attention to the shifts in our foundations as we encounter these leaders of tomorrow.

Observing the mix of today’s student enrollment as they shift between Gen Y and Gen Z, we have come to refer to them as Generation “C” – the connected, collaborating, co-creating, community-conscious class with the power to choose. And the key demand of these future “customers” is control.

With current jobs evolving and new jobs being created, how do we prepare for this changing world? As planners, we cannot predict the future, but we can help shape it. As designers we cannot account for every future trend, but we can create flexible spaces that are adaptable to the unknown. And we should aspire to design a built environment that will be enduring and inspirational, while reflecting our distinct moment in time and space. Accounting for the one constant of change is the constant challenge of the designer.

Tarleton Building
As the first building on campus, we maximized the technology available in flexible learning spaces.
Tarleton State University Fort Worth, Fort Worth, Texas
Tarleton Building
Tarleton State University Fort Worth, Fort Worth, Texas

Has the relationship between the university and the community changed and how has this influenced design and planning?

Innovation ecosystems are those places that occur at the intersection of higher education, research, healthcare, government, and private sectors. Whether designing a university research park that cultivates start-up businesses, an academic medical center that stimulates community health, the walkable, urban spaces of a college-town, or an innovation district that facilitates tech transfer, fosters industry partnerships, and spurs economic growth, the impactful role of the university on its community cannot, and should not, be underestimated.

But like any strong relationship, the best “town and gown” marriages require hard work. A regular update to the university campus master plan is a must. That plan should align with the institutional strategic plan, sight a vision, chart a path, and prioritize investment. It is also important to recognize that the campus does not exist in a vacuum. It is a key part of the fabric of a community, so engaging that community in dialogue is crucial. Streets, sidewalks, and trails connect campus and the city. Students, faculty, and staff live within nearby neighborhoods. The campuses need local utility providers. Businesses at the campus edge rely on the sophisticated student consumer. The university can dramatically impact, if not drive, the economy of a college town or university city.

Today, community and economic development leaders throughout the country are working alongside their university leadership to reshape their local ecosystems. The University of California, Davis and the City of Sacramento are leveraging their medical center and industry partnerships as they redesign an under-performing campus edge as a catalytic new site that will transform their economy. In Oklahoma City, the master plan for their burgeoning innovation district is being forged with a partnership between city, economic development, business, university, and academic medical center leadership. And in Osceola County, Florida, the master plan of the NeoCity technology district helped shape this rising high-tech hub buoyed by a partnership between with the University of Central Florida, private sector, county, region, and state. It is at that special intersection of campus and community that the best of things can happen.