Earlier this year, The Atlantic published a story depicting a new normal for higher education—one fraught with a dwindling pipeline of enrollees, rising tuition costs and an increase in school closings. It posits that the increased savvy of the higher-ed shopper, coupled with years of criticism around rising tuition costs and student debt, have driven universities to a tightened economic reality. In a climate where every dollar counts, universities are getting smarter about capital improvements to the campus and approaching decision-making more like today’s developer: What is the highest and best use of space on campus today? How can we ensure that the improvements we make appeal to our ‘customers’—students, faculty and staff—and keep them coming back for more? How does our brand go beyond school colors and evoke the true experience of our institution?
With this shift in approach, we as designers are increasingly becoming partners at the front-end of decisions about where and how the campus can improve. While physical condition and cost continue to inform capital budgets, the ability to weigh and measure these factors against more qualitative phenomena—brand strength, user experience and student success—can lead to better use of resources and greater impact.
For example, how might a process like renovating a library change if its success was measured against improved learning outcomes, freshman retention or faculty recruitment? Furthermore, in a community of diverse competing voices, there is a certain appeal in a decision-making process that yields data-driven, equitable, and objective outcomes. Across all types of institutions—no matter size, reputation or location—we’ve seen a hunger for a more informed, holistic approach that ties capital decisions to metrics that matter.