PLACE Matters: Creating Community in the Community College
The Connecticut Community College System taps into the power of adaptive reuse.
By Pamela J. Loeffelman, FAIA, LEED AP, and Lenell Kittlitz
The transformation of community colleges from an alternative degree program focused predominantly on certifying a specific area of training to the multifaceted approach of today offers a unique case study of how place matters—how learning environments both enable and inspire. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the ongoing transformation of the State of Connecticut’s Community College System.
The original purpose of a community college was to provide education and workforce training that would fulfill the needs of the community within the geographic context of the school. When it opened its doors in 1946, the first Connecticut Engineering Institute was designed to meet the post-war needs of Connecticut’s manufacturers for competent technicians.
Mirroring national trends, Connecticut’s two-year college system expanded in the 1960s with three more technical institutes and nine community colleges. Place, while important, was predominantly decided by demographics and location. Acquisitions were often buildings not originally intended for higher-education use. This adaptive reuse led to a rich and varied architectural response by the Connecticut Community Colleges (CCC) to their specific regions, programs, and student populations.
Community Colleges Today
Today we continue to see tremendous expansion of the programs and constituencies that community colleges serve. CCC now enrolls 51.8 percent of undergraduate students in Connecticut public institutions of higher education, surpassing the Connecticut State University System and UConn.
The diversity of students is also increasing. From 1998 to 2001, part-time students generated more full-time equivalents (FTEs) than full-time students. This trend changed in 2002, and as of fall 2009, full-time students accounted for 57.7 percent of the total FTEs generated. Minority students represent 33.5 percent of the student body (30.1 percent are black and Hispanic), a 24.9 percent increase in minority enrollment since 2005. Overall, the community colleges enroll two thirds of the minority students in higher education in Connecticut.
While some students are still interested in two-year degree programs and short-term certificate programs, there are also those who are looking for solutions that reduce the cost of a four-year degree as well as those looking to change or advance their careers. In the fall of 2009, 43.9 percent of CCC students were enrolled in occupational programs. Liberal arts/general studies programs accounted for an additional 39.5 percent, with the remaining 16.6 percent not enrolled in a specific degree or certificate program. The most popular programs overall are liberal arts/general studies, business, and social/public services.
With this diversity of population and programs, the physical plant has had to adapt accordingly. Architecture has evolved from multipurpose classrooms to a more flexible high-tech learning environment. Labs are often industry driven and partially funded by companies looking to ensure access to appropriately trained workers.
In addition to academic spaces, the introduction of sophisticated community places has been an increasingly important component of campus development. These spaces support outreach, fundraising, and community development while also sustaining the social infrastructure for a very diverse student body.
Emerging development trends can serve to predict where future priorities will lie. Two case studies, one urban and one suburban, illustrate how the marriage of context, program, and character can shape a unique design for learning.
Housatonic Community College
During the 1990s, Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport relocated into the inner city by acquiring and transforming the abandoned Hi Ho Mall. Located directly adjacent to I-95, the site was also close to Metro North and other local transit routes and offered an attached parking garage. The new facility, known as Lafayette Hall, opened for the fall semester in 1997, with 180,000 gross square feet and 1,543 FTEs. Nine years later, Beacon Hall, a former department store within the mall, was renovated to increase campus space by 175,186 gross square feet, allowing for additional enrollment of 3,266 FTEs.
The primary design challenge was to adapt and transform the last element of an existing suburban mall. Originally a Sears, Roebuck, and Co., building, the vacated “big box” retail building needed to respond to a number of conflicting requirements:
- One side of the building needed to respond to a 60-mph context and represent the city’s urban development, while the other side had to complete the frame of an academic quadrangle.
- The existing Sears Building needed to be added into a single-building campus in such a way that the entire campus could be transformed.
- The building had to be apportioned to accommodate the academic and social contexts that support the growing and diverse student body.
- The renovated building required a layout that is adaptable as well as user friendly for a variety of demographics.
This recently completed project expanded Housatonic’s core capacity for state-of-the-art classrooms while also providing amenity space to create a campus setting that addressed the needs of part-time and full-time students. In addition to core
academic and faculty spaces, the newly programmed space includes a bookstore, wellness center, a black box theater, a cafeteria, and a large events space capable of multiple configurations that can host college and community programming for up to 500. In addition, art exhibition space was required to provide an appropriate venue for one of the largest art collections at any two-year college in the United States.
While the renovation of the existing Sears Building provided additional programs and capacities, the overall growth of the one building facility into a multi-building campus was pivotal in Housatonic’s continued development. The design for the courtyard brings students together by providing a community gathering place that encourages students to linger and interact before and after classes. It is this outdoor space that has transformed the campus and the overall student body’s social structure.
Manchester Community College
Manchester Community College, founded in 1963, is the largest community college within the system in terms of enrollment. Manchester also has the largest community college campus in the state at 160 acres. The college’s original 13 temporary buildings, known as the East Campus, were finally demolished in 2009 as part of the campus landscape master plan. Over the last decade, the college has grown to 470,000 gross square feet, allowing for a new learning resource center, culinary arts program, state-of-the-art classrooms, music rooms, art and graphics labs, science labs, and most recently the first middle college magnet school in the state of Connecticut, Great Path Academy.
This recent expansion was an addition that extended the existing core facilities and was intended to not only address enrollment but also increase Manchester’s core capacity for state-of-the-art classrooms while creating a campus setting that addresses the needs of both the part-time and full-time students. In addition to core academic and faculty spaces, the newly programmed spaces include a bookstore, wellness center, a 365-seat concert theater, a cyber café, and art exhibition space throughout public areas of the building.
Manchester has focused on a semicircular core circulation pattern with a central courtyard area, complete with gardens, outdoor space, and access to parking areas which fan out around the campus. The primary design challenge was to be as forward thinking and flexible in new space as possible, allowing for the escalating enrollment. Other key challenges included
- Manchester needed to keep the intimacy of a small college while allowing for pedestrian and vehicle circulation and timely access to classrooms while not becoming a sea of asphalt.
- Future building growth needed to be apportioned to accommodate the academic and social contexts that support the increasingly diverse student body. The former East Campus offers expansion opportunity for additional buildings and programs. It also provides the opportunity to continue to shape the Manchester campus into an institution that further nurtures not just the academic concerns of the students but also their need for social interaction with their peers.
In recent years, economic pressures emphasized as never before the need to serve students by offering more appropriate and affordable pathways to education. Within the state of Connecticut, collaboration with other institutions of higher education resulted in the following initiatives:
- The Connecticut State University System and the CCC system approved a transfer compact that offers dual admission to students who are planning to enroll at Central, Eastern, Southern, or Western Connecticut State Universities after completing an associate’s degree. Upon completion of the associate’s degree, students transfer to the university they have designated. The signing marked the first time that all 16 institutions adopted a uniform statewide dual admission program.
- Graduates of Connecticut’s Community Colleges earning an associate’s degree in liberal arts with a 3.3 GPA were able to participate in a transfer program and be guaranteed admission to the University of Connecticut’s School of Business through an expansion of the Guaranteed Admissions Program. The Guaranteed Admissions Program (GAP), begun as a pilot program in 2004, provided Connecticut’s Community College students the opportunity for guaranteed admission to any UConn campus once they completed an associate’s degree in a liberal arts transfer program at any of the 12 Connecticut community colleges.
- Graduates of the Connecticut Community College nursing program are now guaranteed admission to Saint Joseph College to earn a bachelor’s degree in nursing. Students dually enrolled at the six community colleges that offer associate’s degrees in nursing will also have access to Saint Joseph’s faculty, resources, and advising.
As a result of these initiatives, enrollment has continued to substantially increase. In the spring 2010 semester, there were 55,030 students enrolled in the CCC system, up 9.2 percent from spring 2009. All 12 community colleges saw increases in headcount. Full-time equivalent enrollment around the system is 11.7 percent above spring 2009.
Just as in the past, the Connecticut Community Colleges, as well as similar institutions across the country that are experiencing the same level of growth, will answer this challenge as an opportunity to better serve students with appropriate curriculum and programs as well as architecture that can both inspire and enable. One apparent answer to the ever-changing demands of place is to recognize the return on investment of good design, which provides not only the needed response to program and function but also understands the value added of appropriate indoor-outdoor connections that assist students in transitioning to and from their already busy lives. Students in these spaces may be just a little more attuned to their immediate learning opportunities, which could ultimately lead to a new and improved future.
Photo credit: Top: © Sarah Mechling-Perkins Eastman Below: © Elliot Kaufman