Technology and undergrads: How college student housing can keep up

 In Higher Education, Blog, Articles

I couldn’t believe my eyes. My favorite bar for cheap pints was now a quiet little coffee shop with plush sofas.

I was excited to return to my alma mater and hit some of the hangouts from my college years, but half of them were something else entirely. Anyone more than a few years out of school can probably identify. College towns don’t ever stay the same for long.

Technology is making the same kind of impact on today’s college students and higher education institutions across the country. And these new tech expectations are drastically changing the college experience.

Changes to what’s important

First, let’s back up to the Millennials. This generation really got to enjoy college student housing at its peak, as universities were racing to one-up each other with extravagant amenities designed to recruit. Lazy rivers, climbing walls, tanning beds, spas—universities were forced to compete with off-campus developments all trying to lure more of the incoming freshman class.

Now that the Millennials have aged out, the priorities are starting to shift, explains Lisa Prevost in The New York Times:

“As Millennials move on and so-called Generation Z moves in, student housing is shifting away from recreational dazzle and toward amenities that reflect the gig economy: digital conveniences, ample spaces indoors and out for studying and collaborating, and cutting-edge fitness facilities to maintain wellness.”

While these new Gen Z students will still gladly partake in this new standard of luxury, they are arriving at college with a new expectation of technology and how it can be seamlessly folded into their daily lives. Today’s student sees technology like a utility: Just as we would expect to find multiple outlets in every room of our house, they expect connectivity to be delivered with convenience, wherever they are on campus—from the classroom to the student union to their dorm room (and at every step along the way).

Shannon O’Connor elaborates in spaces4learning.com:

“The top two expectations incoming students have for on-campus housing is privacy and the very best WiFi … The perception is that students want to and expect to be alone (with their web-connected devices). One survey respondent summed it by observing that incoming students expect ‘separation from real people, access to Internet.’”

New expectations bring design changes

College students today are digital natives, growing up with smart boards, laptops and tablets, going back to grade school. So, it’s no surprise that kind of perspective is changing habits when they reach campus.

Textbooks, reference material, historical documents—they’re all at their fingertips, which means there’s little need to spend hours in the library. Study groups no longer need a set meeting and location because students can easily connect to each other virtually.

This kind of paradigm shift can be seen easily in the changes to dorm furniture, for example. While I remember using my large and bulky (and quite ugly) desk in my room, students now need a simple writing surface. The desk no longer needs to hold stacks of books and paper anymore, so we’re seeing a slimmer profile model in many rooms—if they include a desk at all.

The buildings themselves have been slower to catch up, but they’re moving in the same direction as well. As new facilities are being built, a greater focus is being placed on accessibility of outlets, the location of the wireless access points and how the technology infrastructure can be integrated into the building. Thankfully, the bulky equipment of years past has slimmed down dramatically, which means it’s easier to incorporate the latest and greatest to serve every corner of the building and ensure seamless coverage. After all, today’s student has very low tolerance for slow Internet or spotty service because it can drastically alter the daily lifestyle they’ve come to expect.

While gaming, for example, still works best through a direct wire setup, most housing and school buildings today aren’t wiring anything to the wall anymore. That simple change injects a new freedom into building design, which means architects can co-create spaces designed for optimal learning and satisfaction—supported and supplemented by technology, not limited by it.

As we all know, the technology of today is mobile, which means students are learning everywhere. Lessons are no longer contained to only the library and the classroom. Indeed, the college experience is all-encompassing, and technology is shaping how schools are more efficiently teaching and how students are learning—in the lounge, in their rooms, on the sidewalk, even at that new coffee place (although I’m still not happy about that).

Shelli Ulmer, AIA, is a client leader at Hollis + Miller Architects, an integrated architecture firm that designs the future of learning environments, including higher education, public and private K-12. Share your thoughts on Facebook, LinkedIn or on Twitter @HollisandMiller.

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