From Campus Tour to Golden Walk

In the current economy, competition for students has grown even stronger. Colleges and universities are racing to upgrade campus infrastructure and expand their arsenal of recruitment tools. At the same they must tighten budgets, postpone capital projects, and freeze hiring. One very effective and low-cost solution for institutions could literally be rounding the corner right now: the campus tour. By improving their Golden Walk, institutions can show what makes their campus special in a way that better engages prospective and enrolled students.

Pamela Rew has designed academic buildings and master plans for more than 20 years. But when time came to visit colleges with her oldest daughter, she began seeing campuses in a different lightas a parent anxious for her child’s safety and happiness, and as a spectator on the quintessential campus tour. Her daughter, who has the fortune of having two architects as parents, later became a tour leader as a Tufts University freshman. Together they offer their professional and personal thoughts on the Golden Walk that every college needs to know but rarely asks. 

1. Set the tone immediately

“Ignore the trash cans,” Margaret says apologetically to every group of prospective students and parents as they start walking on the tour path demarcated by her university. Though it approaches a newer campus building from a thoughtful perspective, the path also takes the group right by the campus dumpsters. From her own experiences on the campus tour visitor, Margaret knows first impressions count. 

2. Please disregard the traffic

When Rew designs campus master plans, she puts vehicular traffic to the campus perimeter while pedestrian paths, green spaces and popular student destinations go toward the campus center. While touring campuses with her daughter, Rew discovered another advantage to this layout: Fewer roads cutting through campus means fewer tour groups are split up, and more parents and students can hear, ask questions, and absorb their surroundings without worrying about the cars flying by. 

3. Loving the student life

Margaret says nearly every tour group asks to see a dorm room. What they really want to see is a room in which students actually live, and not one that is not staged with furniture and lifelessness. Due to privacy issues, some colleges don’t include a preview of dormitory rooms on their tour even though freshmen will spend a great deal of time there. 

4. Sustainability sells, most of the time

Energy efficiency and cost savings top many universities’ lists of why to build green, but it’s also a major selling point for today’s environmentally-aware students. “It’s really not acceptable in any other way for new buildings,” Margaret says, which her mom likes to hear. At higher educational design conferences, presenters often list organic food as a top food services and sustainability trend, Rew says. Margaret points out students are still living on a student budget. Though they enjoy cafeterias serving locally grown food and the ability to select fresh ingredients for custom omelets and salads, organic food is still on the wish list—not the shopping list. Though it’s important, Margaret said, its premium in cost makes it “not of huge importance.” Students at Tufts do rally behind local independent restaurants and cafes over chain fast food joints and coffee stores. 

5. Take a breather

Instead of racing through the campus tour, Margaret takes frequent stops for several reasons. It gives students and parents a break from the tour to get their bearings and take in their surroundings. From the campus layout to the bustling activity around them, students must be able to envision themselves on campus. The campus walk should include several open, public breakout spaces so visitors can speak individually with the tour guide and rest their feet while remaining—or becominga part of the everyday campus activity. 

6. People watching

College Web sites today have enough information to answer questions on almost any topic, from curriculum to faculty bios to dorm room sizes. They have 3-D maps, virtual tours and photo galleries. Still, what they can’t give prospective students is the full campus life experience and the knowledge if they will fit in. Students want to visit the campus in person “to look around to see who they may become friends with,” says Margaret. She fields many personal questions about her life and what she does for fun, but she doesn’t mind. Students just want a sense of what their academic and social lives may be like at the college. Margaret also takes her tour groups to the lawn of Tufts University President’s residence, located in the heart of campus between academic buildings and fraternity houses. The closeness of the residence impresses tour groups. “I like to acknowledge how important it is to our university president to live here and be on campus,” Margaret says. 

7. Design students notice

Margaret is selective on which stops she lingers with her tour group and which she breezes through hastily. For all the time architects and planners spend studying, finessing, and agonizing over college master plan design, Margaret wants her mother to know students appreciate it—even if they’re not sure why. For example, the slightest rise in temperature has students sprawling on well-trodden campus lawns, playing music and Frisbee, reading, and hanging out. “It’s like a giant living room,” she says. By integrating open spaces with academic and residential buildings and popular pedestrian paths, the master plan supports student life and the desire “to see and be seen,” says Rew.

Raised by two professional architects/parents, Margaret has developed a discerning eye for program space and building design. For example, she notes the campus center at Tufts is primarily hardscape and transitional spaces where people come and go. The only place for student interaction is in line for food. “The building is useful—people eat and study there all the time, but it has a lot of wasted space,” she says. This space could otherwise provide opportunities for informal and formal interaction between campus community members. 

The library is much more successful, she says, with high ceilings that open up the space so students don’t feel trapped or cramped. Amenities such as comfortable chairs in quiet areas, wireless Internet connection, and a cafe that offers free coffee for students meeting their professors increase the incentive to visit. The library also offers different types of workspaces designed and sized for a range of occupancies and uses from individual study to group work. The sense of camaraderie is particularly high when the large study areas are filled by 50 or so students, each working diligently, silently, and independently, but sharing in the comfort of having their peers beside them. 

8. Food? Say no more

Though dining halls and food courts are scattered across campus, Margaret focuses mainly on the more successful dining spaces on her tours. Some older dining halls in dormitories have low ceilings, a lack of natural light, and a very utilitarian atmosphere. “They’re pure function,” she says. “When you’re done eating, you are done.” These spaces provide little incentive for students to linger or interact, a result of earlier design practices that separated eating and lounge spaces. The tour groups often ooh and ah over the variety of food stations offering fresh produce and mix-your-own-meals the newer dining rooms feature. Students always line up at the omelet station. Coffee is very important even if it’s not very good, Margaret says. 

9. Scope the Crowd

Finally, Margaret encourages prospective students and their parents to attend a student panel during their campus visit. Not only do they have the opportunity to ask lingering questions and hear a variety of perspectives, but they’ll also see the diversity, or lack thereof, of enrolled students and other prospective students in the audience. At one institution, Margaret was struck by the contrast between the relatively uniform cross section of students on campus she observed during the tour and the unexpectedly diverse group of students in the panel. It seemed disingenuous on the part of the university. She didn’t want to go to a school where everyone came from the same ethnic, socioeconomic or educational background. “It’s nice to be with people who are different than you.”

 10. Focus on the Journey

Institutions should invest in their master plan for many reasons, but the campus tour should be one of them. A successful tour will take prospective students where enrolled students live and work, engage in the atmosphere of the campus community, and communicate the institution’s character. By thoughtfully considering the path that leads from one destination to the next, colleges and universities can create a memorable journey that prospective students will remember.