Campus Ecology

Despite the fact that research is plentiful that focuses on student characteristics, such as student involvement, or the impact of external environments beyond the college campus, “little research exists that explores the role of the college or university environment – especially the classroom itself – on student persistence” (Barefoot, 2004, p. 9).  Initially I was in agreement with the statement.  There seemed to be no literature that supported the perception that facilities, specifically the College Union, impacted retention on campus.  Then I had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Tom Miller, Associate Professor in College Student Affairs at the University of South Florida, who has studied persistence models in higher education.  Dr. Miller was instrumental in directing me to the theory of campus ecology, which has provided the foundation that supports my belief that the facility, specifically the College Union, does have a positive impact on satisfaction inside and outside the classroom.

Campus ecology, applies the principles of human and developmental ecology to college settings.  Jim Banning (1978) stated, “campus ecology is the study of the relationship between the student and the campus environment” (Schuh and Jones, 2011, p. 244).  Even further along, “campus ecology and design represent a new dimension in education.  Fitting campuses to students is a new perspective.  The state of the art is developing.  It depends upon a developing awareness of the shaping properties of consciousness and the consensual nature of campus reality” (Tilley and Faaborg, 1978, p. 34).

“In the environment are factors and influences that interact with an individual or organizational unit and with each other and that need to be identified to understand the concept of campus ecology.  Environmental factors can be the:

  1. Physical setting or place (features of the natural environment and the man-made environment)
  2. Human aggregate or characteristics of the people (social, economic, cultural, ethnic background of groups)
  3. Organizational (size and function of organizations)
  4. Social climate and/or characteristics of the surrounding community (support of a particular social setting and clarity of expectations).

Each environmental factor may include several influences that predispose, enable, or reinforce behaviors” (NASPA, 2004, p. 9).  “Taking human and campus ecology theories together, it becomes clear that the person-environment interactions occurring in the micro- and mesosystem levels of Strange and Banning’s (2001) environment components lead to the achievement of varying degrees of inclusion, safety, involvement, and community” (Schuh, Jones, and Harper, 2011, p. 245).

When I look at campus ecology through the lens of student affairs, the following points expresses how this theory can be applied in this profession, and in the College Union.  Hurst and Morrill (1980) stated,

“The role of student affairs in higher education is threefold:

a)     To study and understand the student, the environment, and the consequences of the student-environment interaction in order to pinpoint potential mismatches and needed interventions;

b)    To foster student development by providing students with the skills, attitudes, and other resources they need to take advantage of an profit from their learning environments; and

c)     To promote environmental resource development, such as redesign interventions, to create the optimal environment in which human development can occur” (p. 40).

The College Union is a prime campus facility that supports student development.  “Since spaces are viewed as vehicles for the expression of consciousness, a student may be trained to select spaces that provide opportunities, inducements, and positive reinforcements in the desired direction of development” (Tilley and Faaborg, 1978, p. 28).

“Ecology theory holds that environments select and favor some behaviors and personal characteristics over others, sustaining “ecological niches” that promote or inhibit certain kinds of development (Bronfenbrenner, 1993; Moos, 1986; Strange & Banning, 2001).  Designing the environment so that every student finds a supportive ecological niche is the shared responsibility of academic and student affairs professionals” (Schuh, Jones, and Harper, 2011, p. 252).  The College Union facility is a prime location on a campus that offers a niche for many different community members.