Center of Attention

Have you noticed a sharp increase in new and renovated university centers? Or that many centers encompass a range of functions greater than the traditional student center? If so, you're right. There has been a movement to design, add to or renovate traditional student centers, in many cases combining them with functions not generally associated with student centers.

The new Millennium Center at the University of Missouri — St. Louis (UMSL) exemplifies the new trend. The center serves multiple roles. It is a place for students to relax, shop, participate in recreational activities, and attend banquets and other events. Non-academic functions include admissions, counseling and student organizational meetings.

Cause and effect

Traditional marketing tools — how well are they working?

UMSL and other colleges and universities have found their traditional marketing tools, such as catalogs, brochures, location, academic and athletic reputations, to be effective.

But Curt Coonrod, UMSL's director of admissions, says: “With the strong economy of the 1990s, the choices became greater. People were more willing to borrow beyond previously accepted levels. Plus, the availability of more grants and scholarships made the competition tougher.”

During the '90s and since, the need to listen to students' wants and needs has become more important.

Students have become more savvy consumers, says Mannie Cunard, executive director, National Association of College Auxiliary Services' (NACAS). They ask more of their universities, and it takes more marketing to satisfy them.

They want an environment more like the “one-stop shopping” of the malls they frequent. More convenience. More interaction. Better amenities.

Thus the new, more convenient, more inviting university centers.

Gone to market

What is the target market for colleges and universities? Is it new students? Existing students? Parents? Faculty? The community?

Today's college or university must market itself to all of the above. Prospective students must feel good about the campus from the outset. Although traditional marketing tools are still strong factors, the positive impression must continue once the student is on campus.

The number of students will increase 25 percent to 30 percent increase over the next few years, enough to strain many university and college capacities. Cunard says these students will “feel no loyalty or reason to remain in school if taken for granted.” Continually evolving university centers that meet these students' changing wants and needs will play a large role in keeping these students on campus.

Parents, too, must feel comfortable that their sons and daughters have a safe, comfortable learning environment.

John Turk, director of the University of San Diego's (UCSD) bookstore, says that universities once marketed themselves primarily to parents prior to enrollment. Now schools must continue that communication throughout their son's or daughter's time at the school.

Nearly everyone who tours a university campus visits its university center, so it's crucial that the center appeals to parents.

With competition for funding and students always a source of concern, higher-education facilities also must serve their communities.

“While universities and their surrounding communities used to keep their distance from one another, this is no longer the case,” says Turk.

So, today's universities are offering more programs and opportunities to a variety of groups — corporate and industry, alumnae, local and state governments, and area residents.

Tools of the trade

As the new, multifunctional university centers have come online, universities have found that their purposes go beyond mere function. The centers have helped to expand their universities' marketing efforts. They now supplement the schools' efforts to attract students, retain them, appeal to parents and serve the community.

For example, UMSL's Millennium Center is a large, distinctive building composed of sweeping curves, standing out from its mainly rectilinear campus counterparts.

The positive impression continues when inside the building. Its open, airy feel and broad functionality were a big hit. Prospective students and their parents touring the campus raved about the Millennium Center.

But the glow of satisfaction does not end after the first visit. Many of the new university centers are destination points — places where students go for a wide range of activities. Students find that functions such as registering, applying for financial aid, and meeting with advisers are more convenient and quicker to accomplish in one location instead of having them spread among several campus buildings. And those tasks are more pleasant when close to amenities such as fast-food outlets or upscale coffee shops.

Like UMSL, Johnson County Community College (JCCC), Overland Park, Kan., recently added a new student center and Student Success Center to its campus. The adjoining buildings consolidate non-academic functions into one location (from six), along with the traditional student center functions of recreation, bookstore and food court.

One JCCC student, who is in a wheelchair, commented after his first day that he was amazed at how easily he completed all his registration functions. He accomplished in a short time what he had expected to take a day and a half.

Once school has begun in earnest, students continue to find these buildings valuable. They use them as gathering places, as well as functional ones.

They use the centers' study and TV lounges, computer labs and food courts, and visit with professors, other staff members or classmates over coffee or lunch.

Universities take advantage of the centers' tendency to become a gathering place by using them to promote upcoming events — events that attract students and the community. UCSD has gone even further by including a 500-seat theater in its Price Center, as well as a ballroom and meeting rooms.

In fact, many of the new centers contain meeting rooms and conference centers that can be used by campus organizations or rented by non-campus entities. And the schools actively promote them.

The University of California — Santa Barbara (UCSB) even provides catering services at its university center. UCSB has taken its center's marketing role so seriously as to create a separate website for the center.

How do You rate?

Bob Samples, UMSL's director of university communications, says that the Millennium Center is “a brick and mortar symbol of how we want to treat our students.”

The university centers are showing that universities are listening more closely to students and parents, and are willing to change to meet evolving needs and wants.

Judging from student, parent and visitor comments about this and other modern university centers, this appears to be working. According to UMSL's Coonrod, the Millennium Center has been a very positive addition.

NACAS' Cunard says that many of the new university centers have been “extremely impactful in bringing success” to its universities' marketing efforts.

He cites Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., and Webster University in St. Louis, whose centers have been open for a number of years.

Cunard says that some of the largest and most sophisticated facilities, such as UCSD's Price Center, even have generated revenue for university through their retail venues. Most centers, however, are funded primarily through student fees, supplemented by their retail revenues.

Many of the centers are still only a year or two old, and their effectiveness as marketing tools still is being assessed. The numbers are not in regarding their impact on enrollment or retention.

One thing, however, seems for sure: they are making campus life much more convenient and student-friendly.

The future

Mary Robinson, director of the student center at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville (SIU-E), says that students want to be entertained on their own terms.

She predicts that university center venues will remain open longer and longer, and that within five to 10 years, SIU-E's Center will have one or two venues open around the clock.

SIU-E's Cafe Java, a coffeehouse/cyber lounge, already has nearly 24-hour accessibility.

This has necessitated self-contained restrooms, and entrances and exits separate from the remainder of the building. This certainly will be a consideration for such multifunction, multihour facilities.

Cunard carries this notion even further. He predicts that the entire university center environment will evolve into a place with fused-purpose spaces — food court combined with lounge, combined with computer port, combined with a library function.

There will be no typical cafeterias or food lounges, and there won't be a need for specially designed spaces.

Coffey is a principal with Kennedy Associates Inc., an architectural, engineering and construction-services firm in St. Louis. The firm worked on the Millennium Center project at UMSL. Wood-Steed is owner of CommPlus, a St. Louis-based marketing communications firm.

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