Student Retention - Can Sustainable Lounge Furniture Really Help?
A lot of people are talking about how furniture can actually help you improve student retention.
When we first started to hear about that trend, we were impressed if not a little skeptical. But there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence to support these assertions.
And in fact RealPage, which collects data on this topic, has some numbers to back it up.
So we thought it would be worthwhile to learn a little more. What are people saying and what does the data show?
And more broadly, how is furniture helping schools increase their retention rates by contributing to the development of sticky social spaces?
Here’s a quick overview of what we found.
Stimulating Students Outside the Classroom
Traditionally, schools have designed learning environments tailored for the classroom. Because, that’s where all the learning happens, right?
In our hyperconnected contemporary age of laptop-driven learning things are changing quickly.
Yes, students study in their dorm rooms and classrooms, but they also read, cognize, collaborate and create in quiet corridors, crowded around power outlets, nestled in discreet nooks, and hunkered down in common rooms and lounges...in short, all over!
And now administrators and educators are realizing that it’s important to harness these trends and develop conducive learning environments that transcend the classroom.
In general, they refer to these spaces as informal learning spaces.
Schools recognize the power and potential of using informal learning spaces to connect students to each other to facilitate learning. And that in turn helps with retention, among a host of other benefits.
In an an article called The Furniture Effect, Sherrie Negrea chronicles the positive impact of new furniture on school campuses and speaks to the value of informal learning spaces.
“The whole thing is about retention,” says Jean Hill, interior designer for the Dallas County Community College District. “How do you keep students on campus and [encourage them to] stay on campus? That’s their learning environment. They learn better there and with other students.”
At the heart of this effort to create cool and compelling spaces that students want to frequent is clean, comfy, and environmentally conscious lounge furniture.
And it’s true. The days of old school bare-essential dorm rooms are passing into the halls of history as students’ expectations keep rising.
Luxury amenities and digital-age design are increasingly the norm. One higher education analytics firm, RealPage, says it like this:
In contrast to the old and crowded dorm-style residence halls built in the past, many universities now strive to develop structures more comparable to what is seen off campus.
In fact, a lot of design studios and architects are taking their cues from both startup culture and the hospitality industry.
In an article on student housing trends which picks up on this culture shift and alignment with millennial ideals, the folks at Curbed write:
The residential college system of student living, the classic arrangements of small communities on campus, found on the pastoral grounds of schools such as Harvard and Oxford, isn’t new. But in keeping with bigger social and cultural transformations, dorms include more shared spaces and room for informal interaction and collaboration. The descriptions read straight out of a startup office, or coliving space.
Students want more of a contemporary, adult lifestyle on campus, says Yarinsky. "Students want a more sustainable campus," she says. "They care about energy conservation, walkability scores, better food and local sourcing. A much larger percentage of them are interested in a healthier lifestyle."
Design Insider draws a parallel to the hospitality industry when it comes to meeting student expectations.
We see a clear correlation between higher education interior design and planning an office workspace. Balancing soft seating with quiet areas and pods to create spaces to work alone or as part of a larger group. Penelope also identifies the hospitality sector as being one step ahead in terms of how space is used, ‘you just have to look at the way hotels and the hotel industry has changed. The idea of a hotel lobby where you come, sit down, work, meet somebody, have a coffee, or just take time-out, it’s exactly what we’re trying to bring into spaces within education.’
Residence halls obviously play a central role in this emerging trend.
In relationship to student housing, the design team at Clark Nexsen points out that:
Today’s college students embrace housing facilities that are lively, engaging, state-of-the-art, and sustainable.
They go on to illuminate the multi-layered advantage which flexible upholstered furniture can bring to a space.
Colleges and universities create common spaces with specific objectives in mind: to encourage social engagement, improve retention, help students build relationships and make new connections, and ultimately foster academic success. Precious spaces within a residence hall, common areas have to be flexible and desirable – students must want to visit them. To encourage this, design concepts feature lounges, study spaces, kitchens, and laundries that are equipped with comfortable furniture that can be easily reconfigured or moved to accommodate different types of events, both impromptu and planned.
So what are the numbers when it comes to furniture and retention?
According to RealPage, overall retention and graduation rates improve with better housing and furniture.
For example, the University of Kentucky saw the following result from renovations that aimed to provide “the amenities and study space that students typically seek.”
One of the major benefits that the university saw in this initiative was the improvement of student recruitment and retention and the creation of a sense of community by providing the amenities and study space that students typically seek. The university’s freshman retention rate has increased from 81% in 2012 to 83% in 2017 and its graduation rate has grown from 56% in 2012 to 66% in 2017. Its latest on-campus housing delivery contains all the amenities that the school was envisioning for their students.
Exploring the varied benefits of luxury residence halls vs community-centric residence halls, Bowling Green State University saw significant advantages in building residence halls that created the kind of sticky informal learning spaces that drew students together.
The general idea is that community-centric housing is better for underclassman because they immerse students in peer relationships and social milieus that promote overall retention.
In their 2010 master plan, Bowling Green identified unique residence hall design features that would help increase underclass student retention. The university built new residence halls for underclass students that emphasize community spaces over personal spaces, with a focus on a few key features:
- Relatively smaller personal rooms
- Attractive lounges
- Communal study spaces
- Public kitchenettes
Are You Ready for the Furniture Effect?
Do you want to increase your school's overall student retention?
Are you interested in finding some fresh solutions for informal learning spaces?
There's more to it than simply selecting stylish and comfortable furnishings.
The truth is, we don’t believe there's any single cookie cutter approach. Every school has a unique context with specific challenges and opportunities.
So we’d welcome the opportunity to learn more about your campus. And we'd love to collaborate with you to help transform your underutilized spaces into thriving hubs of students engagement.
Give us a call or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Let's design the kind of spaces your students will return to again and again.
(Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash, Helena Lopes on Unsplash)
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