How Does Facility Quality Impact College Student Enrollment and Retention?

Universities aren’t merely domains of higher education -- they’re also businesses. And, as is the case for any other business, revenue is always top of mind. Colleges acquire funds from multiple streams, but their primary driver (by far) is student tuition and fees. So, while schools can only accommodate a certain number of students, they’re incentivized to maximize enrollment and retention. After all, a higher volume of students translates to increased revenue. The question for colleges everywhere, then, is how to encourage more students to attend their campus and stay there.

Many factors contribute to student enrollment and retention, including professor reputation and experience, relevance to specific majors and interests, proximity/location, social environment, cost, and more. Unsurprisingly, the quality of a campus’ facilities ranks high on this list as well. Few students will want to endure a university with outdated, unkempt, unaccommodating buildings and landscapes. If a university wants to make itself more appealing to current and prospective students, then it must take comprehensive facility management seriously.

In this blog, we’ll further explore how and why facility quality impacts college student enrollment and retention, primarily citing a 2019 study conducted by Lucinda Sue McDonald at Western Kentucky University titled, “The Impact of Campus Facilities on the Recruitment of Students in Higher Education."

Better Facilities Correspond with Better Enrollment and Retention Rates

The dissertation mentioned above makes a clear case for the strong relationship between campus facility quality and student recruitment. While this conclusion may seem obvious, McDonald affirms this intuitive claim with hard data collected from hundreds of students across multiple universities using various survey questions. While the sample size of this study is relatively small, the outcomes paint a clear picture. McDonald’s survey found that the top five most influential factors for college selection (ranked from most important to less important were:

  • Strong major in one’s field of interest

  • University location compared to student home

  • Appearance and quality of campus facilities

  • Location of school (proximity to a specific city, presence in a specific state, etc.)

  • Career preparation/prospects

According to this particular survey, the quality of campus facilities resonated with 39.7% of students as a matter of high importance. In other words, more than 1 out of 3 students would at least partially base their decision to attend a given school on the quality of its buildings and campus as a whole. It follows that schools with high-quality facilities are able to recruit and retain more students.

Prolonged Campus Visits Can Make or Break Enrollment

First impressions are undoubtedly important when attracting new students. That said, ongoing recruitment and retention require much more than merely making an initial positive impression. Today, many students prefer to dive deeper into the college experience to get a stronger sense of what a particular school has to offer. Short, scripted tours only offer a cursory and manicured glimpse of a college campus, whereas a prolonged visit can provide a much more genuine presentation. When prospective students spend more than a full day on campus, they will start to notice more specific aspects of facilities, including their restrooms, trash disposal bins, floors, landscapes, climate control, and so on. All of these features act as non-verbal cues, letting the student know different things about the university. For instance, if a classroom is dusty, stuffy, and riddled with debris, the visiting student will likely take notice -- they might not make a mental note of a pristine facility, but the lack of any notable issues is ultimately a positive.

Some Campus Facilities Matter More Than Others

Lucinnda Sue McDonald’s surveys also revealed that students weigh different facilities on a given campus differently. In other words, while the condition of an entire campus has an effect on recruitment and retention, the condition of particular facilities has more of an impact on these factors than others. More specifically (and not surprisingly), the facilities that matter the most include residence halls, dining halls, libraries, classrooms, and major-specific facilities (i.e., labs, study/research rooms, etc.). Visiting students pay close attention to the cleanliness, condition, and overall atmosphere of these particular facilities because they’re the most relevant and frequently used areas for most. Those in charge of a university’s facility maintenance protocols should use this important information to prioritize, schedule, and coordinate various maintenance tasks throughout the campus.

What Most Students Look for in Their School’s Facilities

Facility quality refers to several things, including cleanliness, modernity, operations, amenities, atmosphere, etc. The third research question asked by McDonald for this study was, “What classroom features are most important to students in the college selection process?” The prompt asked about specific features, such as windows, interior color, and furniture choices. Of the respondents, 88.3% preferred classrooms with windows (11.7% preferred no windows). A small plurality of students (58.7%) preferred a classroom with a blue accent wall as opposed to a completely white room, plum accent wall, or yellow accent wall. And there was a pretty even split when it came to classroom furniture and configuration, with 46.6% preferring rolling chairs with desks, 45.2% choosing tables and chairs, and only 8.1% selecting chairs with desks. As for campus facility technology, Wi-Fi access ranked the highest in terms of importance for students regarding school selection. So, in addition to keeping up with traditional building maintenance, universities must consider the lighting, layout, aesthetics, and technology of each and every facility to keep students engaged.

The Importance of Continuous Improvement

The dissertation referenced here concludes by noting the importance of continuous improvement among colleges. It’s not enough to merely hire building cleaning, janitorial, and landscaping services to recruit new students and retain current ones -- universities must regularly keep their facilities up to date and coherent for a more appealing and integrated experience. It follows that comprehensive facility support services are needed to not only maintain campus facilities but also highlight key areas of improvement, establish short- and long-term renovation budgets, oversee projects, and more.

The Verdict

So, how does facility quality impact college student enrollment and retention? Simply put, the two things are deeply connected. Schools that wish to improve recruitment and retention efforts must also improve their facilities on an ongoing basis -- this means investing in professional facility support programs that optimize everything from trash and debris removal to major campus renovations. At The Budd Group, we provide comprehensive facility support and management services for all kinds of institutions to boost their bottom lines, including educational facilities and campuses.

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