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Starting the Discourse: Emerging Trends in Higher Education

At the beginning of October, Gensler’s Chicago office hosted its second event of four in a panel series on emerging trends in higher education. To continue the momentum from the first, session, Leveraging the Loop, in June, which culminated with Chicago being designated as “America’s Urban Campus,” Chi-ollege Town: Place Matters set the stage for a collaborative effort between Chicago’s institutions, businesses, and the city itself to harness a new kind of urban campus community. The panelists–Gwen Drury from the University of Wisconsin, Anijo Punnen Mathew from the Institute of Design at IIT, and Julie Burros from the City of Chicago–explored the question of what makes a true ”college town,” a construct strategically important to Chicago and its surrounding region.

With nearly 60 institutions of higher learning, Chicago is a destination for more than 250,000 college students–yet it does not command a “college town” reputation. Currently ranked below New York, D.C., Boston, and San Francisco in the 2011 College Destination Index, Chicago faces challenges in rallying institutions to make a collective effort to capitalize on the cultural and economic life of the city. Although the traditional college town model remains relevant, Chicago has the potential to define the next-generation campus: a thriving center, an incubator and driver of innovation, a vibrant center of excellence, and above all, a college town that surpasses its counterpart cities.

To define such a collaborative effort among institutions, the panel focused on several themes particular to Chicago as an urban campus: space vs. place; urban vs. traditional campus; and proximity to industry and technology. Students are drawn to places, as opposed to spaces. While space can be defined as a physical construct, place is defined as the memories we associate with a space, according to panelist Anijo Punnen Mathew. In choosing to attend a Chicago institution, students are also making a conscious choice to come to the city. To be successful as an urban campus, Chicago must still offer the allure of a traditional campus: a sense of community and culture, an enhanced quality of life, and affordable and accessible modes of living and transit. Finally, among the many benefits of being a student in a large city is the proximity to industry and technology, and Chicago’s Loop offers exposure to many businesses and the opportunity to gain experience in a variety of fields.

Although many of the elements to a successful urban campus in Chicago are in place, the real challenge is creating strategies to facilitate collaboration among institutions. One approach is to tackle the problem from the bottom up: connect small groups of schools by way of their commonalities and help them to recognize the benefits collaboration brings to their own objectives and programs. Another strategy takes a top-down approach and engages the City of Chicago and institutions to communicate in a larger forum. Only time will tell, but in the interim, Gensler hopes to continue the discourse surrounding these questions facing higher education institutions–in Chicago and elsewhere. Stay tuned for subsequent panels in 2013 on libraries and student unions.

Meghan is a senior associate in Gensler's Chicago office. She has a broad range of experience across the country and overseas in every phase of the architecture and construction process, and she draws on this experience when thinking about new and inventive ways for buildings to broaden the lives of the end-users. Contact her at meghan_webster@gensler.com.

Reader Comments (1)

"Space vs. place; urban vs. traditional campus; and proximity to industry and technology." These are good indicators of what students prefer and where they will thrive best. It is good that schools in Chicago are student-centric. That they care about dropout rates. There are those who don't care if they lose students - they have this narcissistic sense that they can get as many as they wish.
03.4.2014 | Unregistered CommenterJilly Monroe

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