Designing universities for college ‘kids’ who aren’t always kids

During a normal year, later summer would bring eager 18-year-olds unpacking cars, starting the transition into campus life and ready to embark on the “college experience.” Hugs are given. Tearful goodbyes are said.

But is that really the picture on most college campuses? Even during years without a pandemic to contend with, the statistics say otherwise. While there are still plenty of bright-eyed young adults, a study from Higher Learning Advocates shows that nearly 40% of college students today are over the age of 25.

And nontraditional doesn’t just mean age: A majority of college students (58%) work at least part-time while going to school, and 26% are parents. Just 13% of college students live on campus.

These nontraditional students have different needs – from child care to nontraditional class hours – that must be met for them to be successful. That means rethinking everything—from class times to campus design.

Understand the nontraditional-student needs

Many nontraditional students have never set foot on a college campus before and may be unfamiliar with the way things work. Terms like “office hours” can be foreign to those students and even create confusion.

It’s also important to educate faculty about the different needs of nontraditional students, explains Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity University, in Inside Higher Ed:

“For adult students, you have the added dimension of stresses from work and family life.”

McGuire advocates for what she calls “compassionate rigor,” which makes allowances for the additional responsibilities many nontraditional students carry while still holding them to a high standard of academic performance.

Child care and a need for non-standard class times are also challenges facing many nontraditional students who may be holding down a job, parenting a toddler, and taking classes. And that’s crucial because according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse, just one in five part-time students will complete a degree.

Design with the nontraditional student in mind

While much of the design of buildings and campuses focuses on the students who live and go to school there full-time, there are ways to incorporate the needs of nontraditional students into updates and new construction. Some options include:

Child care centers – According to an analysis by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, the number of four-year universities with child care centers declined from 55% in 2002 to 49% in 2015 just as the number of parents attending college grew from 3.2 million in 1992 to 4.8 million in 2012. Adding a child care center to campus eases concerns for students, especially single parents, and contributes to a student’s long-term success.

Two-year community colleges should also consider the availability of child care resources to support students, as it’s not uncommon to find young children shadowing their parents to classes when child care is not available. 

Easy access – More nontraditional students means more students living off-campus and commuting to class. Making your campus as accessible as possible for commuters may require more parking garages, rethinking traffic flow or adding on-campus trams and buses to allow students to access their classes in a timely manner.

Spaces for study and rest – Nontraditional students don’t have a place on campus to go back to between classes, so it’s important to offer them a variety of options within the classroom buildings and student unions where they can camp out between classes. Tracy Tafoya of Spaces 4 Learning elaborates:

“While there are times when students need spaces that provide focus and concentration, equally important are those spaces with energy, noise, even a little bit of distraction. It’s important to recognize that students need to move around, change their environments and eat and drink throughout the day.”

Provide spaces that can be used for studying as well as other areas suitable just for relaxing or chatting with a friend. Keep in mind that students who don’t have a dorm room need space to spread out with books, a computer and possibly food.

Space for online learning

Not all nontraditional students (and during this pandemic, not all traditional students) will attend classes only on campus. Online distance learning is a great way to appeal to nontraditional students who need a more flexible schedule. But that doesn’t mean online learning won’t take up space on campus, which means repurposing space or creating new areas to meet the needs of online learners.

Space for class creation –While some classes can be created with just a laptop, others will need more technical support. Having a designated area on campus for professors to create class content will ensure the highest-quality content possible for online classes. From green screens to help with editing, having a designated space – and designated technical support – to help with course creation will make online learning an attractive option.

Blended classroom space –Not all online classes are solely online. Lab classes, for example, may have lectures online but need classroom space for on-campus lab experiences. Take into account the need for blended classes when deciding how to structure online learning opportunities and plan accordingly. The current need to keep class sizes small means colleges may need to think about repurposing classrooms for lab space or meeting space to meet the demand for more and smaller classes.

Student support space –While many online learners may not participate in blended or on-campus classes, that doesn’t mean they don’t require support. Make space for support personnel who are designated to take care of the needs of online students. This may include a designated space with an attractive background for video calls along with space to meet with students on campus if they need to meet in person.

Community spaces –In the past, online learners may not have come to campus, but many colleges and universities are planning to have students on campus this fall, offering a hybrid of online and in-person classes. That will create a need for larger community spaces in dorms and classroom buildings to accommodate the need for students to meet in smaller groups as well as practice social distancing. This may mean creating larger classrooms and rethinking the design of community spaces like student unions and dorm study spaces. Community space is tremendously valuable to students who don’t live on campus and who have large gaps of time between classes, which results in a need for space to touch down or just rejuvenate before their next class.

Look to the future

The future is uncertain when it comes to college enrollment with the pandemic undoubtedly bringing additional challenges yet to be seen, which makes appealing to nontraditional students an important component of any college or university’s future plans. With many students’ education plans thrown into uncertainty this year, colleges and universities will need to be more innovative than ever in appealing to older potential students.

Understanding and catering to the needs of nontraditional students enriches the campus culture, provides opportunity to underserved populations and creates pathways to success for everyone who steps on campus.

Albert Ray is the market director for higher education at Hollis + Miller Architects, an integrated architecture firm that designs the future of learning environments. Share your thoughts on Facebook, LinkedIn or on Twitter @HollisandMiller.

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