Designing for Impact

Strategies for Attracting and Retaining Students
By: | Issue: January, 2015
November 19, 2014

Increasing enrollment is a priority for many institutions. The race is on to create a marketplace distinction in order to attract new students and to retain current students. As if this challenge weren’t enough, colleges and universities are faced with rising costs, reduced endowments and smaller budgets. As campus leaders look for ways to leverage their resources and still accomplish their enrollment and growth goals, one viable strategy is to recognize the role that physical facilities have on student attraction and retention.

First impressions

First impressions are vital selling points for prospective students. Students seek an environment where they are able to study, learn, collaborate and be successful. In a 2013 study of 165,743 first-time students, respondents reported that “A visit to this campus” was the sixth most selected reason (out of 23 choices) in deciding to attend the particular institution.1 Students want to be able to envision themselves on the campus for their post high school studies. They focus on whether they feel comfortable in the places where they will spend most of their college time, including the library, the student center, laboratories and other specific buildings. This becomes even more important if students already have an area of focus or major. A dynamic design of the outside of a building and an engaging layout inside are fundamental in the student experience during their initial campus visit and later while enrolled at the institution, both in terms of helping potential students feel at home as well as academically supporting enrolled students.

It’s not enough to create comfortable areas for students. Equally important is designing classroom spaces that support students’ academic successes. Areas conducive to learning and interacting with other students and faculty encourage behaviors that help students become more immersed and engaged in their studies and stay motivated to remain at the institution until graduation.

A new campus emerges

One example of a college that used these principles successfully comes from Southern State Community College (SSCC), located in Hillsboro, Ohio, and serves several surrounding counties via four campuses. The college recently closed its original campus and built a new one in the growing community of Mt. Orab. The first academic building on the new Brown County Campus was designed to be vibrant and inviting, both on the inside and out, and to promote a “wow” factor to current and prospective students. Brown County is known for its brown red brick. SSCC wanted the building to stand out. To accomplish the goal, it was constructed with a darker brick façade. Designers also included a multitude of windows in the building, allowing for natural light to shine in during the day and for it to be seen at night. “We are right off the highway and people pass us all the time. The building stands out like a beacon which was important to us. We wanted it to be exciting and make a dynamic impression to get a lot of attention,” said Peggy Chalker, Director, Brown County Campus.

The inside of the building is spacious and lit with invigorating natural light. The colors within the building were chosen to convey a sense of enthusiasm and vivaciousness. Visual aids assist in making classrooms more exciting. “Students today are visually oriented and use a higher speed of technology. They want information immediately and we can provide that now,” said Chalker. SSCC offers several programs requiring varying levels of power and technology to run the equipment. When these programs were housed in older buildings, the equipment ran slowly or was not responsive. This is no longer a problem as the new building contains the latest technology and equipment.

The Brown County Campus only has been open a few weeks, yet Chalker and her staff have felt the effects from the building design. “Students who never noticed us before are stopping by. Students who stopped coming are returning. Students who were thinking about going further away are switching to us to stay local,” said Chalker. She believes it is important to offer a challenging environment that is encouraging and conducive for learning. “If they can find their niche and feel comfortable in the learning space, this gets them excited about the college process. They want to belong in that building and in that environment,” said Chalker.

Stand out from the crowd

Discovering unique ways to stand out from the crowd is an essential strategy for attracting and retaining students. This involves more than figuring out how to spend the available funds. The key lies in determining how the student experience can be enhanced based on space, landscape, facility and other design considerations. By understanding an institution’s real value proposition and incorporating those strategic factors into the redesign of existing space or building new facilities, colleges and universities will gain a competitive edge as they seek to attract and retain students.

Paul Orban, AIA, LEED AP is the higher education market leader for BHDP Architecture. Contact BHDP Architecture at 614-486-1960 or visit the website at