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Collegiate Makeover

Community colleges look to redefine their image to attract an increasingly younger student base and to maintain strong ties to their communities.

September 01, 2005 |

For George Boggs, defending the merits of a community college education is a routine part of his job as president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges. Just last month, he had to set the record straight for a 17-year-old high school student who told the Washington Post she felt "doomed" to attend a community college.

"Eileen Collins, the mission commander of the Discovery space shuttle, was similarly 'doomed' to attend a community college, as was Craig Venter, the scientist who mapped the human genome," Boggs reassured the young woman.

Warranted or not, community colleges have gotten a reputation for being "junior" institutions that provide a second-rate education compared to four-year schools.

But as four-year universities become more expensive and increasingly selective in their admissions, community colleges are becoming the schools of choice for a growing number of high school graduates. "We're beginning to be hit by 'Tidal Wave Two,'" says Boggs, referring to the children of the Baby Boomers.

Based on anecdotal evidence, "More students are going straight into community colleges, and the ratio of full-time to part-time students has been increasing," says Kent Phillippe, AACC's senior research associate. At the same time, says Phillippe, the number of slots at four-year institutions has not kept pace with the growth in the number of high school graduates.

The result is an influx of younger, full-time "Echo Boomers" enrolling at community colleges. In 1997, 39.4% of credit-seeking students in community colleges were under the age of 22. Just four years later that percentage moved up to 42%, and Phillippe foresees this trend continuing in the near future.

Community colleges are responding
to this influx of younger students by beefing up academic programs and building "university quality" facilities and campuses that erase the stigma of community college as second-rate. At the same time, they are finding new ways to maintain strong relations with their surrounding communities.

A case in point is the new six-building, $192 million campus for Kennedy-King College on Chicago's South Side. The 40-acre campus will feature a clock tower and landscaped quadrangle framed by four buildings to provide a more traditional collegiate atmosphere.

"We tried to spread the campus out more by using six separate buildings and devices that harken to the traditional American collegiate experience," says Chris Lee, president and project principal of Johnson and Lee Architects, Chicago, which partnered with the local office of VOA Associates on the project. "We didn't do a gothic campus. It's more of a contemporary interpretation."

Some community colleges are even spicing up individual buildings to form a collegiate setting or even to establish a symbolic structure for the community. Coastal Georgia Community College's recently opened Camden Center in rural Kingsland, located about 35 miles north of Jacksonville, Fla., was designed as just such a "campus in one," with classrooms, a library, an auditorium, a bookstore, labs, gathering spaces, and courtyards, to emulate the feel of a college quadrangle.

"When you're in one of the courtyards, it feels as if there are two or three buildings," says Joe Greco, AIA, a principal with Atlanta-based Lord, Aeck & Sargent, design architect for the $14.9 million, 89,000-sf facility. He says the school's officials wanted the setting to seem like a college environment, not like the local high school.

The exterior design scheme takes cues from the local coastal architecture, incorporating arches, columns, exposed copper gutters and downspouts, and top-hinged, aluminum storm shutters (also known as Bermuda awnings). The domed central rotunda, clad in copper and detailed with decorative port windows, is the focal point, serving as the lobby and breakout area for the auditorium and connecting the major circulation routes on each floor. "We wanted it to be an icon or emblem of the school for years to come," says Greco.

At Community College of Rhode Island's Newport County campus, which opens this month, the key to convergence was a two-story, skylit atrium designed to serve as an enclosed "public square" for the three-building, 65,000-sf campus. Michael Abbott, AIA, principal with locally based Newport Collaborative Architects, designed the buildings such that the cafeteria, classrooms, offices, and auditorium all open into the atrium to create what he calls "an active space valuable to the social culture of the CCRI students."

Abbott likens the atrium to a traditional college quadrangle, but downsized and enclosed. "With our winters and being on the water, we needed a space that could be used year-round," says Abbott.

Putting 'community' back in

In some cases, community colleges are being used to spur economic growth in blighted urban neighborhoods and developing rural areas.

Just east of Atlanta, in Covington, Ga., a new satellite community college campus will be the centerpiece of a master planned "town center" community that will include residential and mixed-use development. Georgia Perimeter College, which operates six campuses throughout Greater Atlanta, is working closely with several private developers and the local government to integrate the new 100-acre campus with the planned community.

"Having a good college, even a small-town college, improves the value of the town," says Ken Higa, AIA, academic facility planner with Lord, Aeck & Sargent. "It becomes a more desirable, cultural place to live, and it gives the town a nucleus. It's also a quantifiable economic benefit that appeals to developers."

A new satellite campus for Georgia Perimeter College in Covington, Ga., will serve as the anchor of a master-planned “town center” community that will include residential and mixed-use development (site plan). Twin classroom buildings will form the gateway to the campus, which will eventually include as many as 14 buildings.  Rendering and site plan: Lord, Aeck & Sargent


LAS is master planning the campus and designing its first building—a three-story, 98,000-sf facility with 42 classrooms, a main lecture hall, science and teaching labs, and administrative spaces. The $14.8 million building, set to open next June, along with a nearly identical twin planned within the next five years, will form "a gateway to the campus," says Higa. The buildings will form a collegiate lawn across the street from a new town green, which will be the heart of the mixed-use town center portion of the development.

"As the campus expands, functions placed within this first multipurpose campus building, such as coffee shops and bookstores, may eventually be handled by private businesses in the town center as part of a sort of free economic system," says Higa. The college is even considering placing planned student housing within the private development to further integrate the school with the community.

A local philanthropic fund paid for the land for the campus, which will eventually include as many as 14 buildings, structured parking, and athletic fields.

Chicago's Kennedy-King Community College is part of a larger community movement termed "Rebirth of Englewood" that includes the construction of 550 single-family homes. Scheduled for completion in fall of 2007, the college campus will tie in with the surrounding neighborhood by providing numerous vital functions, including a new library, daycare center, sports facilities, restaurants, a swimming pool, and a bookstore.

The layout of the campus was designed to "embrace the active social and community participation," says Brandon Lipman, VOA's senior designer on the project. "The quadrangle opens up to the community for almost half a mile to capture as much of the public face of the campus as possible."

Lee adds that this open campus approach is designed to enhance public safety for the surrounding community. "Instead of linking buildings with bridges and tunnels, we wanted to get people out on the street," he says. In the manner of Jane Jacobs, he adds, "The more eyes and ears people have in public spaces, the safer it becomes."

The Building Team even selected materials and building systems to embrace the local trades. All six buildings are two stories in height with steel frame construction, metal stud backup, and masonry veneer. This allowed the team to employ several local masons. "We could have done a steel-and-glass curtain wall exterior, but we wanted to afford people in Englewood the opportunity to be involved in the project," says Lee.

Some community colleges are also teaming with local organizations and government entities to build and operate joint-use facilities. This not only eases the financial burden for the college, but often results in amenities and educational programs the college could not afford on its own.

In Stuart, Fla., a coastal town of 15,000 about 40 miles north of West Palm Beach, the local school district teamed with Indian River Community College to build a state-of-the-art, high-tech classroom and lab facility that is used by high-school students by day and community college students at night and on weekends.

The $8.2 million, 32,000-sf Clark Advanced Learning Center is the headquarters for a new project-based curriculum developed jointly by the school district and community college to provide students with real-world experiences that integrate traditional academic subjects with technology-based curricula, such as finance, marketing, and information technology. The facility is stocked with computers, flat-screen plasma TVs, and a broadband wireless network, and is linked with the college's technology center, providing webcasting and digital storage capabilities.

"Students can create online portfolios and even replay lectures while at home to see how an instructor solved a problem," says Joseph J. Sorci, president and principal-in-charge with FLA/Florida Architects, the design architect.

The college operates and maintains the facility, with financial subsidization from the school district, based on a joint operating agreement. The district also pitched in funds for the initial construction. Sorci says that by sharing costs, both entities benefit from a state-of-the-art building that is being fully utilized. "The state is constantly trying to find ways to increase utilization rates of school buildings," he says.

The 280-seat auditorium at Camden Center was designed to accommodate both community and collegiate events. The facility's central rotunda, accentuated with a patterned terrazzo floor and bamboo wainscot, serves as pre-function space for the auditorium.

"Partnerships are almost becoming a requirement for public institutions to do business anymore," says Arlen Solochek, manager of facilities planning and development with Maricopa Community College in Tempe, Ariz. "As public resources have shrunk and demands have grown, every public institution is looking for ways to stretch its money."

Solochek says the community college shares several performing arts venues at its 10 campus locations with the local organizations. Maricopa is also planning two "enlarged" libraries that will double as city of Phoenix public venues, part of a $951 million capital improvement bond approved by voters in November 2004.

A central rotunda ornately detailed with bamboo wainscot and decorative port windows is the focal point of Camden Center, serving as the lobby and breakout area for the auditorium and connecting the major circulation routes on each floor.Photo: Thomas Watkins Photography

"Things we never would have imagined 10 years ago now are becoming commonplace," says Solochek. "I wouldn't be surprised if, in the near future, we're occupying several classrooms in a slightly over-sized high school."

Solochek says creative partnerships are one of many components that have helped the district sell local bond measures for capital improvement. These financing mechanisms have become increasingly vital for community colleges across the nation to supplement dwindling state funds.

"Showing that we're going to be good stewards of public money through the use of shared facilities and shared resources is one of many positive messages we hope are going to convince 50.1% of the public to support the bond," he says.

Complicating fundraising efforts are escalating construction costs associated with technology in multipurpose classroom buildings. Solochek says Maricopa is spending $30–40 a square foot for audio/visual equipment, white boards, computers, and data lines. "If you would have told me 10 years ago that I'd be spending 40% of my construction budget on technology, I would have laughed you out of the room," he says. "But it's reality."

The need for flexibility is another key component, driven by the constantly changing programs at many community colleges. Healthcare-related classroom buildings at CCRI's Newport County campus, for instance, feature folding partitions that allow up to four classrooms to open up and accommodate a larger class if needed.

"Given that healthcare is such a rapidly changing field, we tried to make all of our nursing and health-related classrooms as flexible as possible," says Abbott. "The walls literally come down at a moment's notice, so the classrooms can be used for basically any type of program."

How Building Teams are remaking community colleges

Goal Solution
Appeal to younger students "University style" buildings and campuses
High-tech infrastructure (e.g., wireless Internet access)
Impromptu meeting and social gathering spaces
Joint educational programs and buildings with local universities and high schools
Consolidate student services (testing, financial aid, enrollment, etc.) into one building
Food service in multiple locations
Integrate with the local community Joint-use buildings (e.g., theaters, community auditoriums, libraries)
Integrate with master-planned communities
Joint educational programs (and buildings) with local universities, high schools, hospitals, and local businesses
Plan for expansion Collapsible interior walls
Minimize columns and other structural elements

20 mega community college projects on the drawing board

Project $ value Building type
Source: Reed Construction Data,

1. San Diego Community College $212 million Business technology building, engineering technology building, humanities building
2. Monroe (N.Y.) Community College $118 million Student center
3. Ventura (Calif.) Community College $117 million Classroom building, parking facility
4. Borough of Manhattan (N.Y.) Community College $100 million Multipurpose classroom building
5. Gateway Community College, New Haven, Conn. $96 million Campus relocation
6. Three Rivers Community College, Norwich, Conn. $62 million Additions and renovations at two campuses
7. Glendale (Calif.) Community College $60 million Science center
8. Cypress Fairbanks Community College, Houston $52 million Two classroom buildings, library, food court/fitness/conference center, performing arts building, central plant
9. Arizona Western College, Yuma, Ariz. $47 million Community center
10. Napa Valley (Calif.) Community College $45 million Theater, learning center, fieldhouse, three classroom buildings, central plant, police facility
11. South Texas Community College, McAllen, Texas $41 million Campus renovations
12. Bossier Parish (La.) Community College $40 million Classroom/lab building, library, student center, gym
13. Lansing (Mich.) Community College $38 million Technology classroom building
14. Cascadia Community College, Bothell, Wash. $36 million Multipurpose classroom building
15. Housatonic Community College, Bridgeport, Conn. $35 million Conversion of a former Sears building
16. Laredo (Texas) Community College $35 million New campus
17. Everett (Wash.) Community College $30 million Education center
18. Los Angeles Community College $29 million Science building, new wing
19. Palomar Community College, San Marcos, Calif. $27 million Science lab
20. Westchester Community College, Valhalla, N.Y. $25 million Library

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