By Lucia Tyler, PhD
Certified Educational Planner

Would you like to be able to walk from your college campus to a neighborhood where you could buy a piece of pizza, order a latte, or pick up a quart of milk? Would you prefer a college that has running trails and large sports fields or a school situated in an urban environment?

The physical layout of a college campus is a critical factor students should consider when deciding which school to attend. How the buildings are situated on the campus and how close the campus is to a commercial district where students can browse through a bookstore or meet friends for dinner can make a huge difference in whether they will feel comfortable there.

When choosing a college, students should consider three factors relating to the design of its campus:

  • What is the topography of the campus? It's important to know whether it's hilly or whether it has lakes you might have walk around to get across campus.
  • How large is the campus? Some students might want a compact campus, while others prefer a school that has an expansive, open feel to it.
  • How accessible are goods and services? Students often want to get off campus on weekends to meet friends in a neighborhood cafe or shop in a local store.
Overall, what's important for students to discover is whether a college has a walker-friendly campus, since at many schools, freshmen are prohibited from having cars. This means that first-year students must be able to walk to a pizza parlor, coffee shop, or grocery store or take a campus shuttle bus — if it's available — to a commercial area.

One reason why Ithaca has been ranked the best college town in America for four consecutive years by the American Institute for Economic Research is that it offers students an eclectic mix of restaurants, live music, and shops — all within a short distance of both Cornell and Ithaca College.

When looking at the layout of a college campus, one issue to consider is whether  it is shaped like a dumbbell, with a cluster of buildings on one site and a cluster on another site, with some type of connector between them. Students often dislike campuses that are divided this way, because it may require them to walk long distances to reach one part of campus from another.

One layout that students do prefer is the "Target"-type plan, in which classroom buildings and the student center are in the bull's-eye. This layout is used by the University of Connecticut, which has located its dorms and gym in the first ring around the core of the campus and its playing fields and parking lots in the outer ring.

For students who want to attend college in an urban area, such as the University of Pennsylvania or Columbia University, safety is a big consideration. Under the Clery Act, a federal law passed in 1990, colleges and universities must publish an annual campus security report with three years of crime statistics and make it available to current and prospective students. The law was named after Jeanne Clery, a 19-year-old Lehigh University freshman who was raped and murdered in her dormitory in 1986. If you are considering attending a college in an urban neighborhood, it would be a good idea to read its campus security report before making your final decision.

The best way to gain an understanding of the physical layout of any college you are considering is to visit it. On your college tour, take a walk through the campus and explore the periphery of the school. That is the only way to find out whether you will feel comfortable spending four years there.