Volume 77 | Issue 3
May 2009

Trends: How demographics, technology, and sustainability are shaping future college unions

 David Hatton, Carolyn E. Farley, John Cook, & David Porter

The world is becoming more connected. Physical barriers have been broken, and a global community has emerged. A whole generation of students is linked to one another through social networking websites such as Facebook and MySpace. Now, more than ever, there is a need to create a local, live community on campus where students meet face to face.


The trends we are seeing today are only just the beginning of what is ahead. Challenged to maintain both academic and social interests, the college union is perfectly poised to provide a place for cocurricular learning. As globalization takes hold on campus, three key factors will shape the college union of the future: changing demographics, technology, and sustainability.


The Demographics of Change

Defining the new user

The largest demographic on the college campus is the millennial generation, but they are just one group to consider when planning a college union. While higher education students have been traditionally between the ages of 18 and 24, one demographic group increasing in number is the “adult student.” A major contributor to this increase, one that is impossible to ignore in any discussion of future development, is the current economic condition. Even during times of economic uncertainty, higher education tends to remain relatively stable. As companies downsize to the new financial reality, laid off employees often go back to school to further their education or retool for new careers. Many of these students will be earning degrees while raising families. Even the promise to start bringing troops home from overseas means an influx of returning veterans into the higher education system. Colleges and universities will need to cater to a new multigenerational population with different needs from traditionally-aged students.


According to the October 2007 issue of University Business, our increasingly diverse nation points to obvious diversity in the student population as a result, with demographers predicting that students of color will comprise a total of 46 percent by 2020. Many will be either first-generation or non-native students. Additionally, the Institute of International Education reports that international student enrollment reached a record high in 2007–08. Campus programs, resources, services, and facilities will need to be shaped to provide a welcoming environment for these changing demographic groups.

Town hall or downtown?

Providing varied services and spaces that cater to each of these demographics will achieve a college union’s goal of bringing people together to form a community, especially for those students whose families are thousands of miles away. The future of the college union is not only as a “town hall” where people gather to continue their learning outside the classroom, but also as a “downtown,” a marketplace where goods and ideas are exchanged and where students can socialize and play. Industry trends show a college union with a veritable buffet of amenities, options, and functions. With everything from theaters, gaming areas, cafés, and art galleries to student organization and administrative offices, bookstores, fitness clubs, and information centers, one might go as far as to say that the college union is a city unto itself. But the students of the future will demand that their union be a “city that never sleeps,” with 24/7 operations and the option to utilize resources and amenities at their convenience (an appropriate response to fluctuating schedules and lifestyles).

Each demographic group may have needs that differ from each other: the traditional versus nontraditional student; on-campus versus off-campus resident; national versus international student. These are some of the more clear distinctions among students, but what about the smaller, more individually specific needs? The first-year student who eats three meals a day on a meal plan meeting his friends who are not on a meal plan; the international student joining activities and attending lectures and performances; the student coming from a full day of work, stopping at the coffee shop to catch up on reading and current events; the single parent who needs day care/night care; a veteran seeking camaraderie with others who have served.

The key to planning a college union that caters to the many needs of different students is to listen to each constituent group and offer the right mix of high-, medium-, and low-activity areas. High-activity areas such as dining and electronic gaming will attract students who want to socialize with peers. Medium-activity areas, including meeting rooms or recreational games rooms, allow students to unwind. Low-activity areas—quiet lounges—allow students to focus on studying. Making these areas visible from one another creates connectivity throughout the college union that enforces the mission of creating a community on campus.

Flexibility by Design

A shift is occurring on the academic side of campuses that directly affects college unions. According to EDUCAUSE’s Diana Oblinger in the research report “Emerging Technologies for Learning,” campuses are moving away from passive learning in a lecture-style format. Instead, they are favoring what “Millennials Go to College” authors Neil Howe and William Strauss describe as active, team-based, collaborative, cocurricular learning outside the classroom. Knowing that up to 80 percent of a student’s time is spent outside of the classroom, institutions can create opportunities for learning to happen anywhere on campus, advised University of Nebraska–Lincoln staff in their “Professionals and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education” essay on cocurricular activities. The February 2009 issue of College Planning and Management examined this trend by taking a look at learning that happens as students interact with each other or professors in corridors, coffee shops, and other public spaces. Many campuses are now moving toward studio-style learning spaces and collaborative zones that support newer pedagogical thinking. The result is less time spent sitting in a classroom lecture and more time working in a small group or watching a pre-recorded session on a personal communication device, which can be done anywhere, anytime.

Collaborative zones

This shift translates into a need for small group and individual study areas within the college union, the preferred location for many students because of proximity to other activities and the available amenities and social opportunities. To accommodate this preference, union professionals can provide areas or pods with less-defined boundaries where a group of students can meet informally and create their own version of privacy. According to millennials expert Richard Sweeney in a 2005 Chronicle of Higher Education Live Discussion, this generation of students places a high importance on personalization. Individuals want to be able to customize a space according to need. Allowing students to control temperature, connect to Wi-Fi, and add more privacy are all ways to put the power into the hands of the user; a necessity in today’s do-it-yourself society. For example, movable walls can be reconfigured to transform a small quiet lounge into a lively student group meeting. Movable furniture with a high back allows students to create pods, requiring no walls at all. Even converting dining areas into a study group meeting place through the use of similar movable and/or stackable furniture gives students an array of spacing options, and allows dining areas to be open around the clock to serve as a flexible multifunctional space.

Multipurpose functions

Today’s students are more comfortable multitasking, Oblinger reported. They can be studying for an exam as they listen to their iPods or texting friends with the television on in the background. The college union can mirror this multitasking trend. Factors such as the current economic conditions or higher enrollment may result in a shortage of classroom space. As colleges start to analyze buildings’ efficiency, more integration between academics and student life may start to happen. Architecturally, fewer spaces will be dedicated to specific functions.

According to a January 2009 article in College Planning and Management, buildings are being asked to house multiple functions. This may mean that the college union could potentially hold a library or classroom space; auditoriums can be used to host a speaker, student production, or movies; and ballrooms can be used for catered events or partitioned into smaller meeting rooms. These are perfect opportunities for college unions to activate spaces that may usually sit empty at particular times throughout the day.

Taking a look at adjacent areas can provide solutions on how to maximize the use of available spaces. For example, during peak food service hours, traditionally quiet areas such as lounges or common spaces could become additional dining space with seating that serves both purposes. At the University of North Carolina–Wilmington, a movie theater capable of both digital and 35 mm projection is used for film studies classes during the day and for cocurricular programs in the evening. One of Eastern Michigan University’s gathering spaces was modeled after a Kiva—a Native American place for rituals. It has been used for performances, group meetings, or as a quiet lounge. Inventive and intuitive ways to maximize the purpose and use of each space result in the kind of flexibility needed to grow with changing needs.

Savvy neighbors

Smart university planners must also take into consideration the surrounding community, which has its own needs and desires, but can ultimately benefit the college or university through rentals (auditoriums, meeting rooms, ballrooms) or business ventures (adult education, gallery spaces, cultural performances). As a fully equipped venue with 24-hour operations, college unions offer the kind of freedom and choices that many other businesses in the community cannot. It will be critical to make these spaces as marketable as possible, playing up sustainability and the many other value-added benefits of the college union as an alternative to other possible venues when town/gown relations permit.

A major ingredient

Colleges or universities commonly desire to activate the union throughout the day, especially in the early evening and late at night. Food service is a destination point that plays an important role in drawing students, faculty, staff, and visitors into the building, offering a form of enhanced social networking. But to maximize the efficiency of their food service component, college unions may offer extended service on nights and weekends to both on- and off-campus residents.

The idea of continuous or anytime dining helps to further build a community through a common dining experience. Increasing foot traffic when the union is normally quiet will support other program elements in the union. Students would be able to get a snack before seeing a movie in the auditorium or grab coffee before a group meeting. Another potential draw is flexibility of options. According to Howe and Strauss, the millennial generation is savvier to brands. Therefore, retail restaurant brands may increasingly be mixed with food service venues. Ultimately, partnerships of this type can positively affect the revenue-generating capability of the union as well.


Techno is Logical


Have a vision and know thy customer 

The relentless pace of technology development will pressure higher education facilities to keep pace with ever-increasing expectations of students, faculty, and staff. College unions have also the unique challenge of supporting both academic and social interests of the campus. These must be state-of-the-art facilities that can be adaptable for future technologies. But how can an institution plan for the future with so many unknowns and uncontrolled variables?

Certainly, one part of the answer is to know the student body. Expecting the students to have a long-term view of their needs is a bit unrealistic and reminiscent of the famous Henry Ford quote in the London Observer: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” However, paying close attention to their immediate needs can help to identify gaps in current offerings and recognize smaller, more localized trends. The second part of the answer is to have a vision for the future of technology. Be informed, be knowledgeable, hire knowledgeable staff and give them the resources they need to stay current. A technology master plan for the union can be used to identify key components that would ensure the facility remains relevant. Bear in mind that while some new technologies simply require extensions to current capabilities, other more disruptive technologies will drive entirely new requirements and initiatives in union facilities.

Personal connectivity

In today’s world, it seems almost quaint to continue the “cell phone” label for these personal communication devices that also provide GPS positioning, music and video recording/playback, television, address books, calendars, gaming, file storage, and so on. We can link in, download, update, and check out just about anything we wish to at the time that is most convenient: now. Depriving students (from any demographic) of the option to be connected at any time would be to ignore a sweeping tide.

Soon, other capabilities will be mainstream, such as projection onto an external surface, a surface rolled inside the device, or headpiece/eyeglass-mounted display. These devices—in the hands of a generation of users who do not know life without them—will fundamentally change the nature of communications for both academic and social purposes.

As reliance on these personal wireless devices increases, the quality of wireless coverage in college unions will become even more paramount than it is today. Spotty or weak wireless service cannot handle media-rich applications that allow users to download the latest pharmacology class or watch broadcast television; these advanced applications—already the life-support system for tech-savvy students—require solid coverage. This will drive a number of changes in the college unions, such as the requirement for in-building Distributed Antenna Systems to amplify wireless signals of all types (not just Wi-Fi, as is currently done) and service agreements with cellular carriers who place some of their hardware within the union building.

Community connectivity

One of the ways that a university can connect with its students and visitors is through a media tower. At the DeNaples Center at the University of Scranton, the media tower extends from the lower level up to the third floor dining entrance. The tower not only acts as a “beacon,” welcoming students and visitors into the building, it also provides information delivery through eight large flat-panel displays, two of which are dedicated to listing campus events. The remaining screens provide news and entertainment television.

It also is imperative to provide touchdown stations and data ports at convenient and abundant places throughout the union. Further, globalization plays a major role. As more and more institutions open satellite campuses abroad, there will be a need to connect back to the main campus.
Gaming and virtual environments

In all their various forms, gaming and virtual environments will play a more prominent role in our academic and non-academic lives, according to Sara de Frietas, director of research at the University of Coventry’s Serious Games Institute, in the report “Serious Virtual Worlds: A Scoping Study.” College unions will need to allocate more square footage for dedicated gaming rooms with large-screen displays, surround sound, active gaming areas, serious (or academically oriented) gaming zones, and immersive virtual gaming environments. With the inclusion of these spaces come new acoustical challenges, as college unions attempt to maintain an active, vibrant (and loud) gaming area separate from quieter spaces for study, controlled conversations, and self-reflection.


Encouraging the behavior of today’s “helicopter parents” is most likely not high on the priority list for many union and activities professionals. However, parental expectations can’t be ignored and will continue to keep pace with—or outstrip—the technology environment. Important events will require audio/video capture and posting on a network for viewing either live or on-demand. For example, when a banquet for a student organization is held, the parents and grandparents of those receiving an award, giving the invocation, or hosting the event may want to view remotely. This capability also supports the notion of “transparency” for all governance, including student boards and groups.

Most college unions currently support this type of activity in a limited fashion, but the time and expense involved with set-up and tear-down of the systems often limits usage to only the most significant events. Clearly, college unions in the future will be expected to support this capability on a much more frequent basis, which will require an investment in both hardware/software systems (cameras, microphones, capture devices, playout servers, network storage, etc.) and people to operate the equipment. Unfortunately, expectations related to the production values of such events are often formed by broadcast television quality, and thus may require professional-level gear and experienced operators.


Future entertainment may offer immersive 3-D viewing, Oblinger reported, with 7.2 surround sound and increased interactivity, requiring spaces and systems that are totally unlike the “television lounge” originally designed for the college union. Most likely, the display devices will be based on new technologies not yet commercially viable; emissive displays might be based on some variant of the Organic LED technology now coming to market, and projection will be laser-based, offering far better colorimetry than current options. Regardless of the display devices used, count on needing more screens that are larger, wider, more resolute, offer better color fidelity, and, yes, are more expensive than the flat-screen monitors installed in the last few years. Expect to complement those displays with subscription-based content services offering access to any entertainment ever produced. And don’t forget about immersive, multichannel audio in a variety of languages. With all this in mind, it might be wise to place some of these screens throughout the building to provide information with an interactive capability.

DIY media

YouTube reports that as of October 2008, 13 hours of video were loaded onto its site every second. This is an astounding figure, even more so knowing that there are a myriad of other places to upload videos for the world to see. While the old Internet was about consuming information, the Internet for today and tomorrow is about both consuming and creating information. Participating in 3-D virtual worlds, multiplayer gaming and competitions, and producing and sharing information all will explode in the coming years.

To support this do-it-yourself media shift, college unions may need to offer various audio, video, and computing tools for checkout or on an interval-use basis. Recording studios, video production suites, and other specialty spaces, now reserved for strictly academic usage, will be desired for non-academic endeavors as well. Of course, small screening rooms (seating four to 10 people) and mid-sized theaters (for 40 to 75) will be needed to view the various productions, creating more opportunities for socialization and interaction outside of the classroom.


Sustaining an Edge

Factors such as diminishing natural resources, rising energy costs, wider knowledge of sustainability issues, and cost savings in building maintenance will lead students and college union directors to demand more energy-efficient and sustainable buildings, those that meet our present needs without compromising the quality of life of future generations. The college union must be a place that matches the expectations and ideals of today’s educated and conscientious students, as well as one that balances prosperity and economic vitality with other sustainable goals. Every sustainable project must begin with the creation of a vision based on the triple bottom line—a balance of people, prosperity, and planet—so buildings are equally responsive to social need, economic vitality, and environmental responsibility.
Beyond trendiness

Incoming students, the oft-mentioned millennial generation, are growing increasingly savvy with regard to the issue of sustainability—now a curriculum and major at many institutions. College union professionals can engage students and other departments and be innovative in designing sustainable solutions to maximize efficiency in the building. For example, there may be a department of agriculture that might study the union cafeteria and food services operations to analyze food waste. Vested parties no longer see sustainability as a trendy subject or a sacrifice that results in more expensive projects; they understand the long-term benefits of employing these concepts at the earliest stages for overall improvement to building performance.

Not only are union planners becoming more familiar with LEED, there is now a new way for campuses to rate the success of their sustainability goals. The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) has released the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment, and Rating System (STARS). Unlike LEED, it is self-reporting and is a holistic approach to sustainability specifically for campuses. These measuring tools can be combined with a more universally deployed ownership program that involves students as stewards of rapidly diminishing natural resources. For instance, this generation of hands-on individuals and financially mindful students is more apt to commit to monitoring and course-correcting their own energy usage.

Details, details …

Sustainability is a means to maximize energy efficiency and maintain the well-being of occupants. The benefits of green design are far-reaching, but clearly are responsible for improved energy performance and a higher quality work setting, both of which should be considered priority goals in the planning of any expansion or new construction project. Owners and users alike can systematically consider environmental impact, energy use, natural resources, economy, and quality of life.

Green building elements include building material selection, construction waste management, indoor air quality, recycling opportunities, landscaping, water conservation, and waste water control. Sustainability practices involve using regional materials within a 500-mile radius; installing plumbing that reduces water use; selecting rapidly renewable interior finish materials, such as bamboo or cork instead of wood; and making design decisions that incorporate environmentally friendly paints and carpets. For instance, the University of Richmond’s new union used emission-free paint in a second-level dining room; indigenous plant life along with an herb garden outside the building (use of local crops); and car pool parking spaces. A plan that includes such options can cater to students, faculty, and visitors.

Natural energy sources can be harnessed. Use of daylighting and natural ventilation create a healthy environment for users, provide visual comfort, connect people to the outside and help them synchronize their circadian rhythms, according to Lighting Research Center based at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the 2008 McGraw-Hill Construction article “Fresh Air and Daylight: Designing Natural Environments.” Daylighting can even be integrated into lighting sensors to further minimize energy use. Thoughtful siting of the building will allow for maximization of light and create optimal views out of and into the building. In addition to daylighting, solar panels and an active façade capture solar energy to provide space heating, water heating, and electric power. Wind turbines and geothermal heating and cooling systems can be incorporated, while green roofs can manage water runoff and reduce heating and cooling costs. With so many options, tools, and processes available, it helps to engage a seasoned team of accredited and inventive professionals. Choose a team who will work with the campus to determine what can be done so that the facility meets the appropriate standards for green building, as well as those of vested individuals.

An appetite for sustainability

There are many food-related practices that can be implemented to help infuse a sustainable way of life into the college union. Student preferences are trending toward healthier, more organic menu choices. Students also like to see display cooking, ensuring that their food is fresh. Another way to ensure fresh food is to contract with suppliers to provide local produce.

College union professionals also can apply a sustainable or green approach to food service design and equipment selection. Take a look at the food service operation as a whole. For example, does it make more sense for each venue to have separate individual “back of house” operation or to centralize those elements that can be shared by the different venues, helping to eliminate repetition and reduce cost? With the onset of higher energy costs and sustainable design practices, the use of Energy Star-rated equipment provides savings relative to water consumption, exhaust demand, and overall utility consumption. Also, try to utilize natural gas for cooking and non-CFC refrigerants on all of refrigeration systems to ensure maximum efficiency and environmental friendliness.
Tray, tray again

Determining what works best for the student body and faculty can involve trial and error before reaching the best solution. Making small decisions can be a simple way to test new ideas for effectiveness without making major changes to structure. For instance, according to AASHE, Michigan Technological University campus food services professionals observed that when provided with trays, students tended to pile on more food than they actually ate, resulting in increased food waste. When the university decided to provide smaller plates and fewer trays, they saw that food waste decreased. It also decreased the amount of items that needed to be dish-washed, thereby reducing energy consumption. Many college dining operators have gone trayless to enhance sustainable dining efforts. Some of these customers have realized savings and successes, but others abandoned the trend due to less-than-seamless transitions and backlash from customers. This is a prime example of how certain determinations may or may not work best for each facility and its users.

Sustainability will become a way of life rather than a medal to be hung on the door of a newly opened facility. College unions can and will be the learning laboratory that they have always been by introducing new materials, technologies, and practices that can be replicated in other settings.




With a seemingly daunting array of facility and operations decisions to make and stakeholder interests to balance, it is evident that there is not one universal definition of the college union of the future. Paying close attention to the three key elements of changing demographics, technology, and sustainability is a definitive and grounded place to begin. Luckily, the best formula for arriving at a solution that accomplishes the goals of meeting the challenges of our future college unions is to pull together as many constituents as early as possible. This team-oriented approach will maximize expertise and provide for ideas and input that may otherwise have been overlooked. To ensure that bases are covered and that the college union reaches its full potential, the best bet is to identify the trends worthy of attention.