Landscaping counts when students pick their schools

You can’t judge a book by its cover, or a university by its appearance. But we often do.

Phillip S. Waite, assistant professor in the Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture, thinks it is human nature to put importance on aesthetics. And college campuses across the country, in hopes of attracting prospective students, should take notice.

For two years, Waite has been studying the appearances of North American college and university campuses and how they correlate to student enrollment and retention. He has found that most prospective students choose a college not based on education, but on the campus appearance.

Most students decide if the college they are looking at will stay on their list after only 10 minutes of being on campus, according to a survey of prospective college students conducted by admissions directors. About 62 percent reported basing their college decision on the appearance of the buildings and landscape.

“In the first 10 minutes they see a parking lot, pathways, buildings and grounds,” Waite said, “and then their decision is made.

“The notion does not rise to the threshold of awareness,” Waite said, “but it’s there.”

Students do not realize that they are excited about attending college at a certain university because the lawn was green and cut, not because the class sizes are small. But the landscape is a medium of communication, Waite said. It’s always sending messages.

“Having a nice looking campus communicates to students that we care about them and value them as customers.”

Furthermore, over time, students have grown to expect more from campus appearance.

“The traditional college campus has grass and trees,” Waite said, “but what was once good enough, no longer is.”

So why are today’s university students so interested in the look of their campuses? Their interest reflects several culture-wide trends, including an increased attention on design, consumer marketing and the experiential economy.

“People care about aesthetics,” Waite said, using examples such as the popular TV shows, Trading Spaces and Extreme Makeover, that show houses being remodeled and faces being transformed through plastic surgery.

In a highly saturated consumer market, businesses are competing by emphasizing the experience of shopping instead of just the products. New shopping venues called “lifestyle centers,” which are design-oriented outdoor shopping areas, are replacing malls. These centers provide upper-end retail outlets, sit-down-waited restaurants, extensive landscaping, fountains and great architecture. Today’s college students have very high expectations as consumers.

Waite said some good examples of landscaping on the WSU Pullman campus include the CUE terrace, which provides outdoor seating and a space for students to gather in groups or study individually; the Library Road side of Todd Hall, which upgrades an old asphalt street into an exciting, visually appealing environment where students can sit; and Stadium Way, which introduces landscaping into a vehicular environment while slowing traffic and creating safe places for pedestrians to cross the street. Stadium Way is also a great first impression for potential students and other visitors.

With many colleges and universities across the country facing scarce resources and budget cuts, grounds maintenance and landscaping are often the first thing to go. But Waite believes the appearance of campus landscaping is much more important to the success of student recruitment, retention and learning. He lectures across the country about the topic in hopes that universities will spend enough money to make sure their landscaping is up to par.

Because today’s college students don’t bother to skim the pages; if the cover is pretty, they will take the class. And if the cover doesn’t look appealing, they may not buy the book at all.

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