Can design impact student satisfaction, even when the students are working students unaccustomed to being on a college campus? West Coast University (WCU), a private, post-secondary institution offering intense, hands-on education to students interested in healthcare careers, recognized that a better campus experience could be a positive factor in recruitment, retention, and overall student success.
The fact is that historically little money has been invested in the post-secondary environment. WCU, based in Southern California, wanted its campuses to be more functional and student-centric than traditional post-secondary facilities. In this way it could ultimately elevate the image of such institutions.
The expansion and redesign of WCU's three campuses came at a time when universities and trade and technical schools are among the few users of commercial building space who, despite the recession, are growing. In the world of education the recession is driving up enrollment at many institutions, prompting expansions of their facilities.
WCU operates three Southern California facilities located in Orange County, Ontario, and Los Angeles. Today, WCU is one of the largest educators of nurses in the state, with the ability to graduate approximately 900 nurses each year, across three campuses, through its Bachelor of Science degree in nursing programs. In October 2009, WCU achieved additional accreditation for the Bachelor of Science in nursing program from the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education. Additionally, WCU's Orange County Campus was recently awarded initial accreditation to offer the first and only Bachelor of Science degree in dental hygiene in Orange County, making it one of only four schools in the state.
WCU first worked with Shlemmer Algaze & Associates (SAA) to renovate its Orange County campus adding a $2 million dental clinic built to support WCU's dental hygiene program. This in turn kicked off an effort that would ultimately incorporate each campus's aesthetics, branding, and design.
SAA's second campus for WCU was a brand new two-story 64,000-square-foot facility in the city of Ontario, located in the Inland Empire. This student-centric multimillion dollar facility is a stunning architectural icon located adjacent to a primary freeway. To meet regional population growth and increase the number of qualified healthcare professionals entering the job market, the school focused on smart design, working with SAA to provide the design innovation to improve the student experience. The building includes classrooms, labs, a student atrium, admissions, and career services departments all under one roof.
According to WCU executives, student satisfaction at the Ontario campus has increased along with the number of qualified instructors applying to teach there. Maintenance expenses have decreased and a sense of permanence has been created with a facility built to accommodate programs in healthcare education.
WCU's President and Chief Executive Officer Barry Ryan says the goal in creating the Ontario campus was to make it the "cathedral of nursing schools." Upon the opening of the new building in 2008, Teresa Bello-Jones, executive officer of the California Bureau of Vocational Nursing and Psychiatric Technicians, says that the campus would raise the bar for healthcare training facilities in the state.
WCU's 98,000-square-foot Los Angeles campus was a call center located in an older section of North Hollywood. Officials believe that the renovation of the property into a student-filled campus will be a catalyst to help revitalize the whole city block. The campus features plug-and-play internet areas and an interior quad where students can meet and talk with teachers in an informal non-classroom setting.
This building project succeeds on a number of fronts. While it elevates the image of post-secondary education facilities and helps to improve student retention and recruitment, WCU's Los Angeles campus creates a new type of learning environment for adult students. The campus design encourages them to interact and study on campus, as opposed to experiencing WCU as a come-and-go environment familiar to many other adult education models.
From the moment students enter WCU, they are in a bright main area that's used as a reception space and as a check-in area for new student testing. Beyond the entry and reception, marked by a large water feature, is the 3,700-square-foot student quad that encourages and motivates students to interact. The area is filled with blues and beige, creating a Malibu-inspired walk along a pier, with graduating blues in the carpeting, creating a sense of water. The center features casual student seating as well as tiered bleacher-style seating along the walls. The innovation of the design subtly invites comparison to an Ivy League sophistication.
Drywall soffits mark classroom entries. Windows in classrooms create open, airy environments for the students inside. The windows also show the educational programs in action and provide visibility into the nursing student activity when potential and existing students, teachers, and visitors walk through the halls. Moreover the high-profile integration of glass creates an atmosphere of transparency so that students feel connected to their teachers, classmates, and curriculum at all times.
Branded graphics located along major corridors feature quotes on success at WCU from teachers and former students. The large student lounge and faculty spaces are well integrated into the student areas to encourage greater student/teacher interaction.
Ultimately, as WCU has found, a passionate focus on elevating the design of its three campus offerings helps to provide an even greater level of quality educational experiences in the post-secondary education realm. More importantly, it ensures that WCU will continue to produce the highest amount of qualified graduates ready to enter the healthcare field.
Rick Shlemmer is founder and principal of Shlemmer Algaze & Associates, a commercial interiors and architecture firm based in Los Angeles.