Community Colleges: Face Forward

Community Colleges: Face Forward

Two-year schools renovate to look and feel more collegiate

In January of 2008, Central College, the flagship campus of the Houston Community College System, will look little like it does now. Located in Midtown Houston, an up-and-coming area with town houses popping up on every block and a rapid transit line connecting to downtown, Central occupies several acres of land. Soon, a parking lot at the center of that land will be replaced by a green lawn with trees and a fountain. A 1970s-era building will be replaced by a glass-and-steel structure housing student services. Another decades-old building will be torn down, replaced by wide-open space.

In just under two years, Central will look more like a campus than ever. The redevelopment is just one example of a larger trend emerging nationwide. Community colleges are digging up their concrete and replacing it with glass and green space. The goals: to make these schools feel more collegiate, to encourage students to stay on campus for longer periods of time, and to create more opportunities for interaction.

"Community colleges are finding a way to finance this, and they are realizing the benefits of it," says Gloria Walker, vice chancellor of Finance and Administration for the Houston system, which encompasses six campuses. "You can be a center of excellence for academics, but there's more to life than academics."

"You can be a center of excellence for academics, but there's more to life than academics." -Gloria Walker, Houston Community College System

The president of LaGuardia Community College, a school of 55,000 students in Queens, N.Y., would likely agree. A vocal proponent of designing community college campuses with learning and engagement in mind, President Gail Mellow spoke on the topic during a Society for College and University Planning conference last summer. She reconfirms her views now. "The physical campus has a pervasive impact on student learning and achievement. If it didn't, Oxford and Princeton wouldn't look like they do," says Mellow. "We need to embolden students to take themselves seriously, apply themselves diligently, and believe in a different future in order for them to overcome past deficiencies," she adds. "A beautiful building [encouraging] serious study shows that the community believes in students-and reinforces the overall atmosphere that faculty strive to create."

Community colleges want their students to stay on campus before and after class. While many schools traditionally focused on convenience, they are now prioritizing charm and comfort. "Our students have spoken and they want to turn our campuses into college campuses," says Walker. In 2008, Central College's new Learning Hub will open with enrollment, financial aid, and testing offices, as well as spaces for group activities and a food court for socializing and eating.

Across the country at Prince George's Community College, in Washington, D.C.'s Maryland suburbs, the only indicators of campus change at the moment are the sounds of hammers and the sight of plastic construction sheeting. But within a few years, the campus will see updates small (refreshed landscaping with new lighting and benches) and large (two new buildings, a tech center and a health studies center).

"We are moving away from this notion as a community college where students ride the bus over, take their courses, and leave," says Charlene Dukes, vice president for Student Services. "What we're saying is, 'Stay with us and become an integral part of the learning community.' "

Improving aesthetics is not just about students, faculty, and staff, notes Dukes. Community members flock to PGCC's campus too, for events such as the annual Caribbean festival. Updating campus spaces underscores the commitment to Prince George's County, notes Dukes.

The need to renovate buildings and construct new ones not only stems from future goals, but also from present challenges. As more credit students enroll fresh out of high school, the physical structures need to evolve. Today's students expect high-tech offerings, one-stop-shop centers, and communal spaces (think a wide lawn on a warm spring day).

PGCC's Bladen Hall is under construction for just such reasons. "It will go from a long, dark hallway to a building that is glass-filled, very open, and allows the sunlight to come in," says Dukes. "The offices will have glass doorways as opposed to wooden doors. It's a conscious effort to make it feel open, welcoming, and inviting."

Ensconced in the updated Bladen Hall, Student Services staffers will be trained in providing top-notch customer experiences. "We'll talk a lot to our employees about what kind of student is choosing to come to community college and particularly to Prince George's Community College, what that means in terms of their family backgrounds, what other institutions they were looking at, and what it is about those institutions that we might replicate," says Dukes. "Our students are getting younger; they are really looking for a four-year college experience on a two-year college campus."

Like PGCC, Camden County College, located in southern New Jersey near Philadelphia, has seen significant enrollment increases and is undergoing a physical growth spurt. At the main Blackwood location, $83 million in master plan updates are helping to make the campus more unified. For CCC, the updates will provide spaces for people to engage in the college community, explains Melissa Hopp, vice president for Administrative Services. "We were finding that it was possible for students and staff to be on opposite ends of campus and not interact with each other," she says.

Johnson County Community College (Mo.) leaders, backed by data from the school's research department, believe a welcoming campus translates into higher recruitment and retention rates for a two-year college. "It's more than just an aesthetic investment," says Jerry Baird, executive vice president for Administrative Services. "It also has bottom line implications."

JCCC, which serves about 37,000 students in suburban Kansas City, maintains a campus design standard that is adhered to throughout all renovations and new construction. The standards help make even the college's older buildings feel bright and modern. In spring 2007, the school will welcome the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art and the Rengier Center for Technology and Business, both of which will incorporate native Kansas limestone, a beautiful source of area pride.

"We are moving away from this notion as a community college where students ride the bus over, take their courses, and leave." -Charlene Dukes, Prince George's Community College

The commitment to maintaining a welcoming campus has flowed into the technology side of college operations, too. "You'll hear the whole controversy over whether students are customers or not, but I think they are," says Wayne Brown, CIO of JCCC. The college has worked with Sungard SCT (now Sungard Higher Education) for more than 10 years, adding on options such as a data warehouse, web portal, and payment plan software over time.

The college's unified digital campus, with seamless transitions and easy-to-use capabilities, creates the same kind of customer-friendly experience that the campus itself provides.

Despite the benefits of investing in infrastructure to make community colleges more user-friendly, one factor holds many decision-makers back: costs. Yet schools are relying on various sources of funds, from public bonds to parking garage fees to private donations, to accomplish their goals.

DeAnza College in Cupertino, Calif., the heart of Silicon Valley, has reached out to the public to help fund construction needs. In June, DeAnza and its sister school, Foothill College, are backing Measure C to ask for nearly $491 million in bonds. "The money that comes from the state is declining, so we are looking at other alternatives," says Jeanine Hawk, DeAnza's vice president of Finance and College Services.

Small steps can lead to bigger ones, notes Baird of Johnson County Community College. Buildings there used to be connected by asphalt or concrete sidewalks with little landscaping; interiors were not inviting. Now landscaped walks and more than 500 works of art dot the campus. Funds have been budgeted out each year. "As we developed a reputation over time, and through the work of our museum director, private money began to become an important part of the equation," says Baird.

Camden County College, to repay some of the debt incurred in building its new Camden Technology Center, is relying on fees from a parking garage in the new structure. The center boasts an inviting cafe, high-tech classrooms, and streamlined student services. The parking garage, however, helps keep it all going.

That kind of creative thinking can work for colleges everywhere. With enrollments rising and new programs appearing, two-year schools will seek out new ways to offer attractive places to learn and live.

So long, uninviting campuses. Hello, college green.


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