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How to design for Gen Z: Creating student unions that respond to a changing culture

Priorities for Gen Z are diverging from Millennials. Understanding them is the key to designing for them

By Ray Maggi, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

In my last blog, What does Gen Z want in their student union,” I discussed characteristics of Gen Z, our newest arrivals on campus:  plugged-in, financially-savvy, entrepreneurial; they also greatly value the thoughts and opinion of their parents. So walk with me….

You’ve just led a tour of your student union to a group of prospective students and their parents. It culminates in the lobby under the giant rendering of your beautiful new building about to start construction. Then, someone in the group asks, “Are student fees paying for the new facility? And by how much will the student fee increase?” 

How would you respond? If you haven’t considered your future audience, years of thoughtful decision-making, planning, and design work can be negated in a second.

Institutions become enamored with selling the concept of their new, state-of-the-art student union, but prospective Generation Z students tend to see dollar signs and decided to go elsewhere to avoid higher fees. 

Generation Z students and their Gen X parents are coming to campus with different ideas, perspectives, and anxieties about how much college should cost, what they are willing to pay for, and what they are willing to sacrifice to make it all work.  So how can you change your campus to meet their needs, yet remain fiscally appealing to them as well? 

Transcript of the video follows
skip transcript
<p>Giancarlo brugnolo&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; I mean, for me, I see a lot of our spaces almost becoming more of a ... Almost like a conference center type of feel, where we're attracting more external clients that want to use our facilities rather than it being attractive to our current student population that's coming in. I think that's where we run into a lot of problems, is that back then, the idea was that, okay, this was where you would come when you would want to have a meeting outside of an academic classroom, so your student government association, whatnot. They would come and meet in the student center.</p> <p>&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; But as we're seeing, that's not really happening anymore. A lot of these clubs are now staying in these academic buildings because they don't want to have to traverse across campus to come to the student union. I see that as a huge limitation for us where we have all these meeting rooms and all these closed, confined spaces in our building, and we have a few open common areas, and a lot of these newer academic buildings are building these nice common areas. Now it's becoming much more attractive to these students. We're losing a lot of business. Instead, we're finding a lot more business from faculty that are looking to hold these academic type of symposiums or something along those lines.</p> <p>Raymond Maggi:&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; I would imagine some of the limitation connected to that, too, for you is funding stream or your place in the queue. If the library is newer first, now you're struggling to bring the amenities up to speed based on the precedent that's set by some of these academic institutions.</p> <p>Giancarlo brugnolo:&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; Exactly. I mean, a lot of universities have a dedicated student union fee where students are paying a certain amount of their tuition and it goes towards the student union. It will be interesting to see how that gets reshaped or possibly even taken away now as we see the nature of the student union changing going forward.</p> <p>Corey seemiller&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; And I want to add something to that too. It's sort of the informal nature of how these students want to gather doesn't lend themselves to calling up the event office and making a reservation for a room and then finding out it's already booked and they can only get it for this hour, they're charged if the tables are set up a certain way. They don't want to deal with that.</p> <p>&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; They want to just be able to find a space to gather and if they want to call a meeting in 20 minutes, they want to know that they have somewhere to go to do that.</p> <p>&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; Without having to go through all the structures like you're talking about. People are reserving those rooms.</p> <p>Giancarlo brugnolo:&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; Exactly. And if they are in those academic buildings, again, they don't want to go all the way across campus. They just want to ... All right. We're in this building. Let's just stay here and do it in a classroom instead.</p>

Penny savers
Contrary to Millennials, Generation Z students grew up under the shadow of constant budget cuts and economic concerns. They’ve experienced declines in funding to the arts and physical education while making their way through grade school and high school. They lived through the greatest recession since the great depression; seeing their household and others cut back financially to survive. And during that time, tuition costs at public universities rose 80% (as reported by US New and World Report from 2003-2013.) Is it any wonder why this generation is so cost conscious, and determined to be their own boss and control their own financial well-being?  

But your facilities still need to be progressive, ever evolving to meet the needs of students. With an understanding of economics, Generation Z students should understand the benefits they are receiving for the cost they are paying. They’ve grown up buying a-la-carte and on-demand. Why buy the whole album when I can just get the most popular song? They may question if they can opt out of certain fees if they say they won’t use the student center.

Consider appealing to their pragmatic side:

  • Have sessions and promote (through social media) the adaptive nature of these spaces. Give ideas how students can use these spaces or how they make it their own. This takes us back to offering incubator or retail spaces they can use to promote or sell their hobbies.
  • Show them the functionality of spaces and their ability to transform for multiple functions or programming events. These students are multi-taskers!
  • Create comfort! Promote your safety and security measures. Gen Z students may feel vulnerable on college campuses and seek a place of comfort; something that may remind them of being home.

Is bigger better?
When I set foot on my college campus, the student union was a seasoned and intimate survivor born of the late 60’s and early 70’s. As the building cycle returned to student life facilities, students unions started to expand significantly. Gen X’s were coming to campus; they grew up in the shopping mall. It was their social epicenter. Student Unions began to mirror these environments--large atria, expansive event spaces, art galleries, movie theaters, conferencing facilities. Bigger was better.

Fast forward to today. Malls are desolate and in despair around the country. It’s a different time. Generation Z doesn’t go to a shopping mall; they’re on their phones. Will the “Mall-ification” of the student union appeal to students who carry their social network in their pocket?

So what’s the plan?
When planning a student life facility, we often consider a construction cost of $300 - $400 dollars per square foot. Certainly many factors will contribute to where exactly your project sits on this scale. For example, is your project a renovation or addition? New construction? How complex is the site? How intense is the food service operation?

You will need to consider every square foot of your project very carefully. A great way we have found to help our clients is through the student life master planning process. This approach allows us to go beyond the student union walls and help clients get a holistic view of their campus and fully understand the type, function, and size of social spaces available to students in other building typologies on campus.

Transcript of the video follows
skip transcript
<p>Speaker 1:&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; I'm curious, too, because you guys talked a lot about that generation Z is budget-conscious, and thrifty. As you guys probably know, there's an arms race on campus, bigger, better, faster. The dorms now are better than most apartments, so when generation Z comes to college with their generation X parents, I'm looking at it going, &quot;You don't need your own kitchen when you have the student center. You don't need the suite style.&quot; I wonder how do you think gen Z students are going to react to the over-the-top facilities?</p> <p>Speaker 2:&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; Yeah, and the financial realities associated with them. If they have to pay for them, they're probably not going to be happy about that, right? In some ways, no matter what happens, they're going to have to pay for them somehow, whether it's a direct fee, or whether it's their residence hall bill. Many of them are talking. We heard students say, &quot;I had to choose not to come to college at all because I couldn't afford to live in the residence halls, and there was a mandatory first-year residence hall policy.&quot; They're making choices about college-going based on the additional fees and the amenities that they are forced to pay for, so ... It's interesting, because this is a generation that could probably be very, very happy in a much smaller residence hall room, although we have gotten bigger and grander and this and that.</p> <p>&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; They have to pay for it, and the idea is, could we have some more efficiency? Places for them to live that would cut down on costs. They don't have to be poorly constructed. They just have to be smaller units with less amenities, because they are getting ... They're getting priced out of tuition, but I think you're right. They're getting priced out of all these other things, these fancy things, this mandatory meal plan, and I get why you have to have it. I worked in a student union. My salary came from the mandatory meal plan. I understand it, but if those are the things that are making students not come, now not only are we not getting their meal plan and the residence hall money, we're not getting their tuition dollars, because they're just not coming at all.</p> <p>Speaker 3:&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; Now you're seeing things like the micro-unit.</p> <p>Speaker 2:&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; Mm-hmm (affirmative). It's very popular. Pod-housing.</p> <p>Speaker 3:&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; Especially in urban schools. I know Penn has one.</p> <p>Speaker 4:&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; It will be interesting to see how those financial concerns ... If you have a student fee that pays for alterations, additions, renovations to your student union, and you have to go to a referendum and you have this group of people voting, saying, &quot;Hey, I don't want my ... Even though it's not going to affect me, but it will for three years down the road, I don't want those students to bear the burden of a 50, 60% increase in their student fee because we want to build a $30 million student union.&quot; It will be interesting to see what the pattern is.</p> <p>Speaker 5:&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; I would also say that when they have to try to justify the value or the increase in this tuition, where are they going to look? They're going to say, &quot;Okay, we're putting money into these academic labs, we're putting money into your education, we're putting it into residence halls where you're going to be staying,&quot; and I feel like that's where the student union really starts to suffer, because at least when I have had my interactions with the presidents and whatnot, it's always been, &quot;Well, what does the student union contribute to the academic mission of the university?&quot; That's where we also get stuck behind this eight ball, because for them it's like, &quot;We're going to build the top-rate facilities for students, for their education,&quot; because that's primarily where they're going is for their academic studies, so they're building these grand labs, these beautiful science and technology buildings, and the student union just keeps getting cut back and back and back and back, because it's not seen as fitting into that mission at most.</p>

Is student life defined by culture or a building?
Maybe it’s time to embrace the spread of student life facilities across the campus. Smaller renovations in various buildings will help serve the needs of the student and allow them spaces to collaborate and gather. The only drawback is that students tend to limit their activity to those with the same academic focus.

If you consider the retail analogy, is your campus evolving like a big box retail center? Are there now multiple ‘stores’ with varying identities across campus? Does your library have an intimate coffee shop and collaborative learning commons? Does your science facility have breakout spaces and lounges? Buildings are becoming hybrids. Every building on campus wants the vibrant social life of the student union. Who doesn’t want to be in a building teaming with life, energy, and collective synergies?! So how does the Student Union evolve when every renovation or addition to campus pulls from its ability to attract students?

Embrace the change! Consider the following when planning your next project:

  • Generation Z may not be looking for a facility that is trying to be everything to everyone.
  • Observe, analyze, and interpret all the spaces on campus where students live, play, and work.
  • Consider the missing pieces and fill in the gaps, don’t try to replicate the success of other spaces on campus; rather compliment them with alternate experiences.
  • Stretch those construction dollars further by spending wisely.

The Generation Z social network is mobile, adaptable, and omnipresent. The student union that works in harmony with every student-focused space on campus will have an influence on student culture far greater than the limits of its walls.

Watch for our final blog is this series. We will explore programming and planning ideas for student unions to appeal to Gen Z students. Mark your calendars and visit us at the upcoming Association of College Unions International(ACUI) conference in Philadelphia March 19-23rd!

For more on this topic, I also invite people to read, Generation Z Goes to College, by Dr. Corey Seemiller and Meghan Grace.

Related item: Higher education design

Will the “Mall-ification” of the student union appeal to students who carry their social network in their pocket? 

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