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Renovated curved white tiled hallway for student interaction with colorful moveable seating. Curved drop ceiling detail, left

A New Life for College Students

Shawn Gaither

Every aspect of a student’s physical, emotional, and intellectual experience has been tested by this pandemic. Following the drastic changes that occurred at higher education institutions almost overnight, a spotlight is shining brightly on the value of the student experience on campus. I know this firsthand as a parent of a soon-to-be college sophomore. My home and all the technology in the world cannot substitute for the on-campus experience that is so critical to student success.

Immediately after colleges and universities made the necessary decision to close campuses nation-wide and transition to online learning, we conducted personal interviews with institutions representing more than 1.6 million students. Our aim was to better understand the challenges institutions are facing, and what the future may hold for students post-pandemic. Through those conversations, we heard that the desire for students to connect has never been more apparent than it is right now. Devoid of physical contact after campuses closed, students have a deeper appreciation for those connections to their peers, their instructors, their work, and themselves.

Learning through isolation during COVID-19 has raised newfound questions about the future of the collegiate experience, and the inherent value it offers to individuals. As they begin to imagine a post-pandemic campus, both students and staff are starting to analyze the balance of on-campus-versus-distance-learning and its effects on the student experience. More and more students are imagining the impact that each credit hour will have on their educational career and are concerned about the value of a particular course relative to its investment cost. An exponential rise in virtual learning brings to question the validity of one institution’s credit hour cost being any more expensive than another’s cost. If all things are created equal for learning in the virtual platform, student life amenities and the physical campus experience are critical differentiators. The main question that institutions must answer is: How will collegiate environments evolve to keep students returning to physical campuses? At DLR Group, we believe modifications in how students live, learn, and play will shape the new student experience on campus.

Diagram of dining systems for schools as High Touch, Low Touch, Touchless. Systems divided by steps: Prep, Service, Payment

Image © DLR Group.

A New Experience for Living and Dining
Our conversations with students unveiled that they are eager to reconnect with their friends on campus, but they are cautious of what their new housing and dining experiences may look like. Institutions are looking for creative ways to mitigate the risk of spreading the novel Coronavirus by examining existing facilities on campus and reaching out to their surrounding communities. The widespread solution for residence halls is a reduction of capacity by up to 50% or 75% of the previous standards. For instance, double occupancy residence hall rooms could become single occupancy, entire floors could go offline, or the number of students living on each floor could be limited. In residence halls with large, shared bathrooms, conversations are centered on assigning bathroom stalls and sinks to specific occupants. To further maintain hygienic separation, residents will be encouraged to take the stairs in lieu of the elevator. Additionally, institutions are in negotiations with community partners to contract with nearby hotels and expand housing for students, either short- or long-term.

Institutions are also navigating new protocols and app-based programs that would require students to “check-in” and register their health status before being allowed to enter a residence hall. We heard repeatedly that students are concerned about mental wellbeing upon returning to campus. In response, AR and VR technologies could be implemented to assist campus health professionals who opt to conduct virtual mental health sessions and appointments. While discussions regarding privacy and security of these programs are ongoing, students we surveyed said they welcome some version of a check-in to support a sense of safety as they return to re-invented living spaces.

Students also expressed their concerns about returning to a safe dining hall. A few options institutions are considering are the elimination of salad bars and buffet-style dining; more pre-packaged meals with touchless transactions that do not require human contact; and temperature scans upon arrival. Campuses may see a food truck resurgence, as well as the use of ghost kitchens where food is prepared for delivery-only meals. Regardless of the final outcomes, our beloved ’family’ tables intended to bring us together, will also be re-invented and re-arranged to support social distancing. Many of these pre-packaged and take-out only options rely on the unfortunate return of disposables that elevate waste. Institutions implementing these concepts must consider alternative, sustainable measures to reduce campus waste. Communication and transparency now and when students return will be key to success. Many of our institutional partners have already sent out videos and other forms of communication intended to help students – and their parents – know what to expect in the fall.


A New Way of Learning
We’ve known for a long time that learning occurs anywhere and everywhere on a campus. And now the concept that learning occurs virtually is here to stay. The success of embedding remote instruction into the learning process moving forward relies on the ability to create authoring centers and collaboration spaces for both faculty and students to come together on campus. Physical modifications to technology and to support spaces will be crucial to support virtual programs and ensure they are viable, long-term options. Likewise, post-pandemic learning spaces will need to evolve to better support hybrid classes and to enhance program value by offering more collaboration and experimentation opportunities. To achieve this, technology must continue to be an investment priority. Enhancements will focus on bridging the gap between the virtual and the physical, seeking a seamless interaction between users. Discussions are already being had around the topic of a “tech kit” for students, which eliminates the need for shared equipment. No-touch ”casting” of content will continue, and physical spaces as we know them will be viewed under the lens of flexibility, and measured by the ease of which they can pivot to a new use –  even if temporarily. For example, it will be critical to understand which programs must be immediately accessible to the student population in the wake of the next crisis, and where those programs should be located on campus. Access to food, housing, and technology were top of the list for the pandemic. If another crisis in the future requires institutions to shut their doors, they must be prepared with an identified location to locate emergency shelter, food, and technology access to provide continuous access for students.

The pandemic also heightened the importance of common space on campus, which is vital in supporting the development of students outside the classroom. Institutions across the country recreated commons spaces and gathering opportunities online, which proves social networking value to students. Virtual student unions are streaming online events like trivia nights, dance parties, and recreation classes to encourage students to socialize remotely. While these provide a short-term solution for gathering, students are eager to get back to campus, resume their routines, and engage with their peers. In addition, highly interactive auxiliary service spaces that support the learning environment are also seeing significant changes to keep faculty, staff, and students safe. Considerations include transparent barriers, controlled circulation, and strict adherence to scheduled appointments to minimize the number of individuals in close proximity.


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