Craig Hamilton
Craig Hamilton
Carrie Parker
Carrie Parker
April 6, 2021

Student Unions and the Community College Experience

Craig Hamilton
Craig Hamilton
Carrie Parker
Carrie Parker

Our education practice was thrilled to participate in this year’s Association of College Unions International (ACUI) conference. Our firm had the opportunity to share our experiences and ideas in two separate presentations—one on why we believe student unions have the potential to be a transformational part of the community college experience and the other on how branded environments can make a big impact on the user experience.

In this post, we’re sharing some key takeaways from the presentation we gave with Dr. Edna Jones Miller and Eugene Jones of Valencia College’s Downtown Campus, about why we believe student unions are the next frontier for community colleges.

Student unions are key to creating community on campuses, and while they’re a staple at four-year universities, they’re less common at two-year institutions. We’ve observed a pre-pandemic trend of community colleges increasing programs and facilities to support student retention and success, and we see this need only increasing as we move to a new post-COVID world.

As the traditional “heart” of campus, unions offer an opportunity for community colleges to rethink how they develop spaces that support the whole student, not just their academic needs. And, while not every institution has the funding for a stand-alone union, existing campus environments present numerous opportunities to harness student union-inspired elements to create vibrant student experiences. Following are three of key takeaways from our presentation:

Rather than limiting the idea of a student union to a single, dedicated building, think “union everywhere.”

Use the spaces in between and around typical academic spaces to foster connections and community and give students a reason to stay, linger and socialize with others. In these spaces, harness placemaking strategies that can draw students in, such as public art, dining options, lounge seating, technology, wellness services, “instagrammable” moments and collaboration and study zones. We often call elements like this “speed bumps” or “sticky” because they give students a reason to slow down and engage with the college outside the classroom.

Alternative models of financing can help institutions find creative ways to create a vibrant campus community.

One recent example is the University of Central Florida and Valencia College Creative Village in Orlando, an incredible public-private partnership between the university, college and a private developer. The partnership allows each organization to accomplish their goals in ways they likely couldn’t independently. The 15-story building offers student services, classrooms, a gym, dining options and other amenities on floors 1-5 and revenue-driving student residences on floors 6-15. We believe partnerships like this present a great opportunity for community colleges to better serve the needs of students.

Union West at Creative Village / UCF Valencia college

Inclusivity is a defining attribute of the higher education experience today.

Students want to be accepted as unique individuals, but they also want to feel welcomed into a collective community. Dedicated space for student-life (that can accommodate both individual and community activities) is critical in achieving this. For example, some students may prefer space for heads-down, independent reflection (think reconfigurable furniture, telephone rooms, a library space, outdoor respite areas, etc.) while others may be looking for space that can accommodate group activities and expression (think open lounge areas, campus lawns, outdoor stages, multi-purpose rooms, etc.). Creating community college environments that are flexible to accommodate both is key to showing everyone that they belong.