4 ways to optimize the student experience with smart space planning

It’s an exciting and challenging time for the campus strategic space planner.
Julie Johnson Roberts
Julie Johnson Roberts

Record-holding sports teams and top-ranked dining halls are always appreciated, but to really boost application and enrollment numbers, colleges need to create a truly differentiated student experience.

And while campus life is a culmination of many ever-changing parts and people, campus space planners can directly enhance the student experience with improvements to the space for accessibility, collaboration and what some call “the new campus experience.”

Here’s how to do it:

1. Improve accessibility across campuses

To create a welcoming and equitable environment for all students, universities need to make their campuses equally accessible for everyone. Colleges need to provide disability services and accommodations to classroom buildings and dorms. To space planners, this is known as Universal Design (UD) and includes guidelines on entrances, routes of travel, and decisions around fixtures and furniture.

2. Design spaces for flexibility

Esports is popular, growing, and has become a major attraction for some students when choosing colleges. Competitive online gaming in particular has become so big that universities have begun to integrate gaming into their collegiate programs. Colleges, such as the University of Oregon and Northeastern University, have varsity esports teams.


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In 2019, ESPN created the College Esports Championship, allowing the most skilled players in the nation to showcase their talent. Because of this, esports players are considered to be student-athletes and are eligible for scholarships. These schools have created esports rooms and collected gaming equipment exclusively for the esports teams.

3. Create a variety of study spaces

Each student has a different approach to studying and working, so it’s crucial for universities to create spaces for everyone. Many colleges, such as Boston University, include both silent individual study spaces as well as collaboration rooms and areas for students in their libraries.

These spaces are created through the use of zones. Having different zones throughout libraries ensures that noisy collaboration spaces are clearly and sufficiently separated from the silent areas and rooms.

4. Make old spaces new

Although many colleges and universities try to maintain their historic integrity, that doesn’t mean they can’t restructure their campuses. Facilities leaders need to create modern spaces that adhere to the current students’ needs.

Iowa State created its Open Space plan as a means for preserving open space that is balanced amongst building use and circulation systems, establishing density ratios and an inter-connected system of exterior spaces that foster engagement and collaboration among students.

It’s an exciting and challenging time for the campus strategic space planner. With student experience an essential part of fighting attrition, they’ll need strong community partnerships and data to drive better decision-making. As leading universities become more tech-enabled and collaborative, savvy space planners will look to enhance the student experience.

Julie Johnson Roberts is co-founder and chief strategy officer of Armored Things, a Boston-based smart space planning startup that leverages AI to provide occupancy and space utilization data to higher education and corporate campuses around the globe.

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