Academic enrollment to colleges and universities across the United States reached a peak in the late 2000s with the children of baby boomers. Since then, applications for admissions to universities have remained steady, without significant growth, because of economic worries and financial pressures, and are expected to shrink over the next two decades. In this climate, students and their parents are being more discriminating with where to invest their education.
In order to compete for the best and brightest students, higher-education institutions are embarking upon a trend in facilities to put their best face forward: welcome centers. The emergence of welcome centers (often doubling as admissions offices) is one of the most significant trends in education architecture. Developing these purpose-driven facilities offers institutions a chance to project a strong first impression for student recruitment.
As more applications are submitted to more institutions, prospective students and their parents (and often siblings and grandparents) are visiting more colleges, thus adding to overall volume of campus visits. The welcome center gives institutions a way to manage the demand and traffic volume.
Filling a need
Prospective students have always visited campuses, but the trend is much stronger now because these decisions are vital to a student’s future and involve significant financial investment. It is the campus visit that prepares students to make this life-changing choice. With this thought in mind, universities and colleges are under tremendous pressure to roll out the welcome mat and provide the most favorable impression for potential students.
According to a survey by the Collegiate Information & Visitor Services Association (CIVA), campus visits (65 percent) far outweigh other influential information sources in a prospect’s decisionmaking (Parents/Family Members 39 percent, Current Students/Graduates 33 percent, University Website 26 percent, Printed Materials 25 percent, Guidance Counselor 24 percent and Admissions Staff 24 percent). Even though 84 percent of prospective students use the Web most heavily in researching colleges, a significant 71 percent, according to CIVA, say the campus visit is the most trusted source of information.
Architects, designers and construction professionals need to work closely with their education clients to design not only the most cost-effective facility, but also to provide a final product that represents what the institution values, and showcases the aspirations and history of each school. Welcome centers serve as a billboard or “front porch” for the university, ultimately the first impression prospective students and their families will have of the school. The facility also has to be functional and efficient, using the most innovative design and construction techniques. And it has to be “welcoming,” making each visitor feel at home and part of a dynamic college community.
The need for the new welcome centers, though it varies for each campus, grew from a combination of changes in the admissions landscape. Because of an information explosion occurring within college admissions with websites, blogs, Facebook pages and tweets, there has been an unprecedented rise in “consumerism” among prospective students and their parents. According to Wake Forest University Director of Admissions Martha Allman, the rising cost of a college education has resulted in the emphasis being placed on value-added. Families are visiting more colleges to “kick the tires” and find a good fit for their students.
By the numbers
The impetus falls on the admissions office to mirror the institution and to craft a positive experience for those who visit. Of the students who apply to Wake Forest, studies show that one-quarter of them has also applied to 10 other schools. WFU’s Allman says that prospects are looking for amenities, modern resident halls, good food and impressive recreation facilities.
For the growing number of schools that have implemented a test-optional application process, the number of visiting students has grown even more. At Wake Forest, for example, in 1996, the Admissions Office welcomed 6,900 prospective students on visits; in 2011, the office had 18,400 students (and their families) take the campus visit. This equates to about 50,000 people per year that form their impression of the university from their experience with the admissions office. For each of those visits, and for each of those prospects, the admissions and welcome center staff must be creative to convey to the school’s academic strength, intellectual vibrancy, faculty/student relationships, enjoyable campus life, valuing of diversity and a wealth of opportunity.
At the University of South Carolina in Columbia, the admissions office has seen a consistent increase in on-campus visits by prospective students. USC’s admissions-related campus visits grew from 29,074 in 2009-2010 to 34,027 in 2010-2011. When factoring in official admissions-related campus visit events for prospective students, the visitations grew from 54,523 in 2009-2010 to 87,102 in 2010-2011.
Larry Hincker, Associate Vice President for University Relations at Virginia Tech, says that his university’s rural setting makes the campus visit experience even more crucial. He says that the campus has breathtaking natural beauty, which any school would want, but it’s also important to show the prospective students and their families that they offer a well-rounded and dynamic environment. Virginia Tech’s center is open seven days a week.
Virginia Tech and Wake Forest actually house their admission office in the visitors center. The relationship between the visitors center and admissions office varies with each campus, often depending on the campus layout and available land.
The size and makeup of the campus may affect what style and size of a welcome center a school has. But it’s widely accepted that campus tours are very important in the student recruiting process because the prospective student’s first impression is a lasting one.
Some schools even hire a campus visit consultant, who will visit a campus, walk around like a prospective student would, and then file a detailed report of his impressions to the admissions office.
Sidebar: Wake Forest University
Wake Forest University has proven to be ahead of the curve by building a state-of-the-art welcome center in 2011.
The Wake Forest center was designed by LAMBERT Architecture + Interiors to revere the Georgian Revival style of the campus, while taking advantage of modern materials and respecting the environment. A great amount of attention was paid to the “first impression” students and parents would receive upon arrival, including the entry sequence and “feeling” provided in the public areas.
Wake Forest’s Admissions Office, formerly situated in the adjacent president’s house (Starling Hall), doubled the number of applications received within the past 10 years, and outgrew its 6,800-square-foot space. With the number of applications and enrollment expected to increase, WFU wanted a “revere and revise” strategy when creating a new welcome center to accommodate growth.
The primary function of the building is to serve the office of admissions, which holds information sessions year-round to prospective students and their families, and conducts interviews and leads tours as part of the application process. For these visitor functions, a 260-seat auditorium and large meeting room are included, along with interview rooms, waiting areas and visitor support spaces. The building received LEED gold certification, reflecting WFU’s commitment to its environmental impact.
The architect maximized the use of the building by making it a multipurpose facility. With admissions visits typically taking place during the daytime hours and peaking at cyclical times throughout the year (summer, early fall, spring break), the building is able to perform multi-use functions for the campus as well as the public. To accommodate after-hours use, admissions offices and operational areas can be secured completely from the remainder of the building.
The facility’s auditorium has projection, sound, acoustical, lighting and basic theatrical capabilities, making it usable for recitals, small theatrical performances, lectures and movies. The conservatory lobby, adjacent to the exterior courtyard, creates a comfortable environment for receptions and special events, and serves as the lobby/prefunction space for the auditorium. Plans were made so that large and medium meeting rooms could serve seated dinners at banquet round tables, and the break room can serve as a catering kitchen for special events.
Well-equipped restroom facilities support every use of the building. Ample parking, which accommodates community and off-site visitors, is within easy walking distance from the main campus.
McCormick is vice president and director of design for LAMBERT Architecture + Interiors, Winston-Salem, N.C.