The past decade was a boom time for building construction on America’s college campuses. But this frenzied growth produced an excess of between 3 million and 5 million seats that could cost the nation’s colleges as much as $50 billion annually—costs passed on to students as higher tuition and greater student debt.
But as campuses built up, enrollment started to slide. Colleges rapidly ramped up online, hybrid and virtual learning to keep in step with the needs of an increasingly diverse college-going population that’s older, more career-focused and less interested in campus frills. Younger students—the traditional lifeblood of many campuses—are increasingly interested in attending fully online institutions. Meanwhile, a growing backlog of deferred maintenance threatens the viability of colleges all across the country. These concurrent developments have institutional leaders questioning the need for more space— or a campus at all.
Though student expectations of online learning and physical space have changed, deciding to scale back or even abandon a physical campus runs the risk of drawing the wrong conclusion. Colleges must realize that even as they enhance their digital offerings, they cannot ignore their physical presence.
Enter a new kind of campus: the hybrid campus, intentionally designed to more effectively meet students where they are in their college journeys.
Nearly 40% of today’s college students are 25 and older, and an even larger proportion can be considered “and-ers” learners who are balancing school and work, education and raising a family, college and military deployment. It’s critical that these students have access to flexible course schedules, clear and direct pathways to a degree and careers, credentials that stack toward certificates and degrees and wraparound services that support their academic, career and physical and mental health needs.
But it’s just as critical that these learners have a place to go to get these needs met. It might be something as simple as a facility with Wi-Fi and air-conditioning where students can meet with tutors and advisers and find a quiet place to study. Or it might be something more ambitious. As proponents of hybrid campuses suggest, institutions should reimagine a campus-based education as a “technology-enabled student experience” that blends the physical and digital worlds in instruction and academic programs, scheduling, career counseling, student engagement and other services colleges normally offer.
This approach can relieve some of the pressure on adding more classroom space. But it also requires institutions to pay closer attention to student needs and ensure facilities are accessible to a broader and more diverse set of learners than ever before. At the University of Central Florida, 90% of undergraduates take online or blended classes outside the traditional classroom. But students still crave connection, so the university converted five floors of its main library into individual and group study spaces.
The challenge of creating physical spaces in a digital world is especially complicated for community colleges, which must have a visible presence in the cities and regions they serve. Traditionally, community colleges open satellite campuses in growing areas. But these outposts usually offer only a few classes and student services at the main campus. They serve as the college’s way of marking its territory instead of a vehicle to provide comprehensive student support.
Austin Community College in Texas creatively designed a hybrid campus space that maximizes opportunity, support and flexibility for adult learners. At four of its 11 campuses, the college has carved out space for the ACCelerator, a cornerstone of its student success efforts.
Each ACCelerator is a large-scale learning space with 600 computer stations that give students computer access, technological support and stable Wi-Fi needed to complete coursework and class projects. In addition, the ACCelerator at the college’s main campus—a converted shopping mall about 10 minutes from downtown—provides tutoring, academic coaching and in-person assistance with admissions, registration and financial aid. It’s open late during the week and on weekends to accommodate students’ busy schedules. By putting technology and student services in one convenient and accessible place, Austin Community College has created a space that truly supports learners.
The college campuses of the future won’t sprawl over multiple acres like they do today, nor will they exist solely in the metaverse. Instead, they will be optimized for a modern learning experience that gives students exactly what they need—and where they need it.