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.