An Overlooked Asset

Economic hardship has rattled Americans over the last three years. In 2008 to 2009, we struggled through the longest recession since World War II. At the time of this writing, the U.S. Department of Labor reports an unemployment rate of 9.1 percent (14M unemployed persons).

Despite the crippling recession, a Georgetown University report identifies a skills gap that will open up as many as 3M unfilled jobs by 2018. And with the oldest of the nation’s 77M baby boomers turning 65 this year, more jobs are certain to open as they retire.

Unfortunately, many of those who aspire to fill these positions do not have the money or the time to attend a four-year college or university. Community colleges have stepped into the spotlight as a credible option for recent high school grads, for the unemployed, and for those trying to enhance their skills while balancing work and family.

A fragile economy forces many community colleges to confront a paradoxical challenge: accommodate surging enrollments while responding to shrinking state funding. The challenge intensifies as administrators strive to meet the needs of today’s sophisticated student without sacrificing the affordability that put community colleges on the map.

According to the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), national community college enrollment rose 16.9 percent between 2007 and 2009. Despite their role as a savior in the reign of recession, most community colleges have experienced cuts in state funding. America’s 1,200 community  colleges educate half of all undergraduates, yet they have historically received only 20 percent of state tax appropriations for higher education. AACC shows that in 2007 and 2008, community colleges only received 27 percent of federal, state, and local higher education revenues. Half the undergraduates — a quarter of the funding. The numbers simply don’t make sense.

Rising to the Challenge
From a design and construction standpoint, many community colleges have continued to evolve despite their economy-induced tribulations. The strategies they have employed range from utilization studies to campus-wide building programs. Each strategy hinges on the potential inherent in the community college model: to not only provide local, affordable education, but also to provide training that equips students with the skills they need to excel in a 21st-century workforce. The following examples illustrate what a few Illinois community colleges are doing.

The One-Stop Model: 
Access and Success
The community college model emphasizes open access to all, yet there is a psychological aspect to how accessible a college is. Many of those considering community colleges are first-generation college students. The enrollment experience can be daunting for some of these students, and the one-stop model helps to simplify it.

The other half of the battle is student success, best defined as students achieving their educational goals. And according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the battle isn’t an easy one: In 2008, only 22 percent of degree-seeking students at public two-year institutions completed their goal within three years.

Student/campus centers based on the one-stop model have emerged as a means of improving access and success. Joliet Junior College (JJC), the nation’s first public community college, anticipated vast growth in the seven-county region it serves in Illinois. Between 2006 and 2008, JJC developed a master plan to respond to projected enrollment increases.

The master plan culminated in the new 115,000-sq.-ft. Campus Center, which offers easy access to everything that students need to achieve success. Accessibility and visibility are at the root of the design of the student street that runs the length of the facility. The first floor offers enrollment services (e.g., financial aid, admissions) to ease the transition and student success spaces (e.g., career services, counseling, etc.) to keep students enrolled and focused on their goals. Moreover, the center offers spaces for students with disabilities, as well as an office for multicultural student affairs. All these spaces are easy to see, and they’re all on one floor.

When those on the student street look up, they see additional resources that support their success. Large windows display students interacting in the library, group study areas, and classrooms on the second floor, while administrative offices occupy the third floor.

The design of the JJC Campus Center also responds to the correlation between the time students stay on campus and the success that they achieve. For instance, the cafeteria, located at the convergence of three concourses, represents a center for student life. It’s a great place to meet friends for lunch, to study for an exam, or simply to people-watch.

Spreading Out
Some community colleges have responded to their rising popularity by extending their main campuses, and reaching out to underserved areas of their communities.

Moraine Valley Community College (MVCC) employed both of these strategies. Its master plan calls for expanding its main campus (Palos Hills, IL). New stand-alone buildings and a focus on exterior spaces create a college campus feel reminiscent of the traditional university quad. For instance, its new student union, separated from other buildings, has become an icon visible from many points on campus.

Not all people considering community college live close to the main campus. For recent college grads also holding down a job or for working adults raising a family, time is at a premium. Add to this the fact that many students will spend just as much — if not more — on gas than on tuition, and location becomes a critical factor.

Some students in the southwest corner of the MVCC district had a 30- to 40-minute drive to the main campus. The new Southwest Education Center (Tinley Park, IL) offers a full range of services for students and businesses in this rapidly growing area. Additionally, as the college’s first and the community’s second LEED-registered (pursuing Platinum certification) building, the Southwest Education Center sets a sustainable standard for the college and the community.

MVCC also expanded its Blue Island Education Center, which allowed the college to increase and consolidate its programs in the southeast area of the district. The 14,000-sq.-ft. renovation transforms the previous tenant’s space into classrooms, student gathering areas, and offices.

Go to the Growth
Community colleges have also responded to current economic conditions by tailoring their offerings based on projected job market conditions.

The Harvard Graduate School of Education reports that “mid-skill” jobs (e.g., police officer, dental hygienist) that require a two-year degree or certificate will be the fastest-growing occupations over the next seven years. Community colleges are in an ideal position to capitalize on such projections.

Despite lackluster overall employment statistics, the healthcare industry continues to improve, reporting 30,000 new jobs in August. For the next 19 years, approximately 10,000 baby boomers will turn 65 each day. Clearly, the need for quality healthcare services will be strong.

Community colleges are filling that need by enhancing their nursing and allied health programs.

First responder and rescue employment will also continue to grow. As the nation’s largest single-campus community college outside of California, the College of DuPage (Glen Ellyn, IL) exemplifies forward thinking with its Homeland Security Education Center (HEC). The facility responds to growing public concerns about national security and regional employment, as well as the institution’s core Chicago-area position in the 12-state Midwestern region.

The HEC serves as an epicenter for local, state, and national agencies to prepare multi-jurisdictional emergency personnel to respond to international and domestic terrorist acts, as well as manmade and natural disasters. The 61,000-sq.-ft. facility brings the college international recognition, enhances the skills of law enforcement officials and emergency responders, and offers its community a symbol of strength. Moreover, students who graduate from center programs are expected to fill 19,000 jobs over the next 10 years.

What’s Going on Right Now?

All this talk of campus planning and construction begs an important question: What about the state funding cuts?

Many think of the master planning process as a way to define and prepare for needs in the next five to 15 years. However, community college stakeholders must also consider current needs, and recognize that their existing facilities have a great deal of actual and potential value.

The space utilization study, a critical precursor to the master plan, provides an objective analysis of space-use rates in the context of existing facilities. If the study reveals ineffective utilization, community colleges can take steps such as block scheduling and different starting times to improve rates.

Such a study at the College of Lake County (Grayslake, IL) revealed that increasing instructional space utilization by 10 percent would equate to building 17 new classrooms. In essence, the college improves operational efficiency without touching a hammer. And considering that a 17-classroom addition would cost $4M to $5M with future operational costs, the strategy proves especially effective in response to recent budget cuts.

The Key to Prosperity
President Obama has cited the community college as a key factor in achieving his goal of once again leading the world in producing college graduates.

Once a secondary option for high school students, community colleges have hit full stride in their pursuit of a renewed mission. Today’s community college has transformed into a vibrant educational “first choice” that prepares students to become essential components in keeping America competitive in an evolving 21st-century economy. 

Jeffrey Sronkoski, AIA, LEED-AP
, is principal in charge of Higher Education and Michael Lundeen, AIA, LEED-AP, is associate director of Higher Education at Legat Architects, Inc.

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