The competitive landscape for procuring university students is fiercer than ever. In the spring of 2021, higher education enrollment dropped 3.5%, a figure that’s seven times greater than the previous year’s decline.
To attract the next generation of scholars, forward-thinking academic institutions are creating spaces that put students’ needs first. At Haworth, we have the privilege of working with universities—and we’ve observed 7 design elements schools are using to charm and inspire prospective and returning students.
1. Welcome with a “Wow”
The notion that you never get a second chance to make a first impression holds true for university spaces. For students touring a half-dozen or more campuses in-person or by video, distinctively designed spaces are far more impressive and memorable. The most effective university space designs create a warm, welcoming atmosphere with a “wow” factor.
Case in point, at the College of Aviation at Western Michigan University (WMU), an easy-to-locate reception area is staffed by aviation student ambassadors who greet prospective visitors upon entry into the building. Semi-private spaces provide areas for prospective students and their parents to talk with current students, staff, and faculty. In benching spaces, current students settle in to study, work, and socialize. Expansive windows give visitors a view of airport operations while large aviation graphics supported by the school’s colors help reinforce the institution’s values and ideals. Altogether, the space creates a feeling of excitement. For many, this leads prospective students to say, “I want to go to school here,”—exactly the thought that a welcoming university space should inspire.
2. Inspire Collaboration
Learning is enhanced by conversations that inform, challenge, and build on ideas. Some of the most valuable experiences for college students are their interactions with peers, professors, and staff that lead to the development of soft skills required of them in the workplace. Academic spaces serve students best when they have access to places to engage with one another.
At Clemson University, the mission of The Watt Family Innovation Center is to create an environment where collaboration among students, faculty, and leaders from industry and government agencies can come together to generate ideas and solve complex problems. One design element employed to achieve their mission is a space that is often overlooked: corridors.
The corridors at the Watt Family Innovation Center were designed to be wider than usual—with walls that include technology. Supported by building-wide Wi-Fi, students have ample access to audio-visual components, outlets, and other accessories to do work from their laptops in the lounge areas. The space fosters interaction as students, faculty, and industry partners seek to take ideas from concept to the marketplace.
3. Work Anywhere
Students expect to be able to do their course work nearly anywhere. University spaces equipped with mobile technology give students flexibility whenever they need it. The Hub at the Donald W. Maine College of Business at Davenport University features exceptional social space design.
Within an open environment—featuring areas to socialize and collaborate—is a coffee bar with tall tables that provide power and connectivity for informal work sessions. Surrounding the atrium are three floors of enclaves, touchdown points, and meeting areas where students can have drop-in meetings. The Hub, with its cloud-based platform for visual collaboration, makes it easy for individuals and teams to create, interact, and share content in real-time on different devices.
4. Flexible Classrooms
Gone are the days of row upon row of static tables and chairs. Classroom spaces that prepare students for future careers are now required to adapt to changing needs. Modern classrooms, with exceptional university classroom design, are dynamic environments—they’re organic spaces that allow reconfiguration based on student activities.
At the Business College at Davenport University, classrooms can be adapted to traditional or casual learning environments with easily movable furnishings. And like designated training and meeting rooms in corporate America, classrooms also feature movable walls and raised access flooring for future space adaptability, without high redesign costs.
5. Room to Focus
Space to think, reflect, and work individually is a critical consideration when designing university spaces for students. The College of Aviation at WMU offers multiple spaces for students who need to focus.
For students who like working amid a buzz of activity, benching or café spaces provide the perfect place. For those who desire a space with minimal distraction, semi-private study carrels with partial walls support focus and concentration. Briefing rooms provide quiet, private spaces for the intense work of preparing for flights and debriefings. Some workstations even provide height-adjustable tables that allow students to sit or stand while they work.
6. Highlight Comfort
No matter how beautiful a building’s architecture is, if the space doesn’t feel quite right, it will do little to attract students. Beautiful, bright spaces with plenty of natural daylight are the places students want to spend their time.
The Watt Family Innovation Center does an amazing job of bringing in natural light with glass walls that also provide a view to activities outside. The result is a comfy space that draws people from all over the university to study.
Additionally, special attention was given to feature comfortable seating at the College of Aviation at WMU. To help students maintain focus, classrooms, debriefing rooms, and common areas offer multiple seating options, including supportive chairs and height-adjustable tables.
7. Space to Relax
Of course, students seek places to relax and just be. In fact, according to Scientific American, there’s great value in taking time for breaks from study and work: “Downtime is an opportunity for the brain to make sense of what it has recently learned, to surface fundamental unresolved tensions in our lives, and to swivel its powers of reflection away from the external world toward itself.”
To be productive and help foster positive mental health, students require places for relaxation, refreshment, and eating. Coffee bars, lounges, and patios offer casual places where students can take a break from their studies. These spaces provide enclaves for quiet time, as well as meeting spaces for socializing.
Universities and colleges that design spaces with student needs as their guiding principle create desirable spaces that accomplish two things: they attract new students and deliver a rewarding experience for enrolled students.