Higher Education Transformations

“Transforming the Academic Landscape,” was the topic of a recent Society for Marketing Professional Services meeting I attended in Columbus, Ohio. With two kids currently in college and one in the wings, I was very interested in the subject and what the representatives had to say about their future plans. The panel included representatives from two large state higher education universities and two private institutions. They all came to the table with differing budgets for their programs, but with the same goals in mind—as one panelist stated, “to make a new environment and transform what used to be into what can be.” All panelists saw the big picture of how the institutions of higher learning fit into the surrounding area and how they could work with the community to improve together.

The big picture- have a plan

The big picture is fueled by the creation of a master plan. All panelists agreed in the great value of master planning as a guideline for prioritizing and requesting funding for state projects. A good master plan is also a useful document to communicate needs to a bigger group, like alumni donors. It can also be beneficial in fundraising and make the difference between a project getting stuck or moving forward. In some cases people from the surrounding area are included in the master planning board to improve higher educations’ relationship and edge to the city. The panelists said a campus master plan update is important every 10-15 years, but it’s also important to remain dynamic as conditions change.

Infrastructure and deferred maintenance programs were also discussed as facilities built 30 years ago age, and historic buildings need repairs and modernization. All panelists described differing ways of funding these efforts, but agreed upon the value of making this an ongoing effort. A trend at one university represented on the panel is to bundle deferred maintenance projects. For example, several building roof renovations or HVAC upgrades will be announced in one project. This is a way of taking care of several projects in a consistent and timely manner.

First impressions

From classroom and residence hall modernization to transforming dining halls into healthy destination dining experiences, it seems there will be no lack of potential projects in the future as higher education evolves with the demands of today’s student. All are vitally important in making a good impression on potential students and ensuring the safety and wellbeing of the current student population. With two kids currently attending higher education institutions in Ohio, it’s a topic I’ve become quite familiar with. In the past four years I’ve been on numerous college tours and learned a lot about what my kids and their peers find interesting, valuable and a deal breaker for their college selection. It was never what I expected. I was wowed by some of the amenities offered at the schools we visited – from full laundry services, free campus rides available until the early morning hours, Starbucks coffee bars in the residence halls and top notch food service available at all hours. While my kids were also impressed, the availability of extra amenities was not an essential part of their ultimate decision. Whether choosing a small college or a major university, the final decision was never solely based on cost, housing or impressive amenities. In nearly every case it came down to the overall feeling they got after the initial college visit, and the availability of their desired area of study. Did they feel welcome? Is this what they pictured college would be? Did it feel right? Do they know someone who has gone or is going there and had a good experience? Could they picture themselves living and learning here? On one tour at a very large university, several friends along the way greeted our guide. It seemed like he knew everyone on this very large campus, which in turn gave it a much smaller, friendly, manageable feel.

Freshman housing

“Where will my daughter go to make
cookies and watch TV?”

While touring a residence hall with my oldest son a year and a half ago, one of the moms in the group expressed concern about the lack of a community kitchen and TV lounge on each floor. She must have had fond memories of her college days, watching “90210” and baking with her “dormies”. “Where will my daughter go to make cookies and watch TV?” she asked. My inner voice giggled– really? My experience with my older child had already taught me this mother was wasting her time worrying–her daughter is most likely going to watch Netflix in bed and order Insomnia cookies at 1 am.

Next stop, the model residence hall room. This is always the showpiece, the “average college life room.” Bunked beds neatly made with matching bedding, desks and chairs, refrigerator/microwave combo, a few items hanging in the closets. 18 people fit nicely all standing still in the room. Looking over part of the room without doing a complete spin and disrupting the conformity of the group, I noted two wall outlets and a door-less closet with high shelving. Note to self- send power strips, and a step stool for my 6 ft. child. Make it a collapsible step stool as there is no storage. Wait… skip the step stool. He can jump.

I was secretly happy when my kids did not get their first choice on housing their freshman year. They both researched available options checked out reviews and submitted their selections in the order of what would be the most comfortable and accommodating. Growing up in the suburbs, they needed a little suffering and thankfully fate stepped in to provide them with the least desirable housing. I affectionately now refer to freshman year as, “Survivor for the Suburban Kids.” Life without A/C, community showers, sharing a room with a potential stranger, learning to secure your belongings- these are are all great life skills. My daughter was placed in the oldest dorm on campus. No A/C, no carpet, radiant heat, and casement windows. When it rained my daughters’ freshman year, it also rained in through their windows- a lot. They learned to check the weather before going to sleep, move their beds away from the windows and they got to know the campus maintenance guy really well. I think my daughter may have accidentally called him “Dad” a few times. When the heat was on in the winter, it was 90 degrees in their room, so they dressed for summer and wrote “Help Me” on their dewy windows. When they were allowed to open the windows again in the spring, she learned she’s allergic to everything green. She learned a lot that year.

Likewise, my freshman son is learning a lot in his 10-story high-rise dorm. Over winter break while doing his laundry– which in hind site should have counted as a Christmas gift, I discovered a lot of mystery clothing items. Turns out he just grabbed piles of clothes from the floor and lovingly brought them home to me. I forgave him when I saw the joy in his eyes after realizing he did not have to wear his shower shoes over break. After winter break, I sent him a box of air fresheners due to a funky smell in his dorm room. He recently told me he found the source of one of the odors. He discovered the homemade pepperoni rolls I dropped off for him 4 months earlier on one of the high shelves he neglected to jump up and clean out. I’m still not buying the step stool.

We’re three years in to having kids in college and overall the experience has been great. There have been a few struggles with housing, underutilized meal plans and overzealous scheduling of classes and activities, but both kids still believe they chose the right place for them. Interestingly enough it’s the people, professors, classes and outside activities we hear about the most.

Keep it real

Master planning and deferred maintenance are necessary as they keep the institutions of higher education fresh, inviting, and functioning. All of the panelists had reasonable expectations for the future of their institutions. I’ve learned the extreme extras don’t go very far in the overall decision-making process or the outcome of a degree. The majority of recent graduates won’t have a doorman, they won’t get a text when their laundry is done, and there will be no meal plan with gourmet ice cream. As they transition to life after college, they will certainly value what they have learned and whom they met both in and out of the classroom, whether their residence hall had A/C and carpet and even if they did not have a state-of-the-art fitness facility.

“to transform what used to be
into what can be.”

Observing my college kids and their friends over the past three years I’m reminded that college is a time to: Figure things out. Be uncomfortable…be very uncomfortable. Wonder often why you took Philosophy. Volunteer too much and learn time management. Stay up all night talking about how to make a better pizza. Hang out with the kid down the hall you would have never talked to in high school. Leave all of your clothes on the floor. Learn something that totally blows your mind. Lose your room key. Learn to be frugal and resourceful. Find something you are passionate about. As I listened to the panelist and thought about my own college years and my kids’ experience, I know there is great value in higher education and in the power it can have “to transform what used to be into what can be.”

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“Transforming the Academic Landscape,” was the topic of a recent Society for Marketing Professional Services. The panel included representatives from two large state higher education universities and two private institutions.

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