Drive past or through nearly any population center these days and you are likely to observe America’s epidemic of exit ramp academic institutions situated on prime real estate aside the highway. The University of Phoenix is probably the best known of these entities nationally, but they are not alone – in the Midwest there are Indiana Wesleyan, DeVry, Davenport, Franklin University (not Franklin College), ITT, Baker, and many other institutions that have branched out from their main campus (or in some cases from their virtual campus) to become occupants in suburban office parks.
From a distance, some of these exit ramp academic institutions almost appear to have been designed in a manner that loosely resembles a modern hotel. It is hard to imagine the real estate at these location being inexpensive, though it may be less than building on a downtown site. Regardless, as urban planners, should this trend be a concern?
Probably the biggest concern is the trend represents yet another tacit acceptance of sprawl being the land use choice du jour. A number of hospitals have unfortunately followed the sprawl option, so why not academic institutions too? Perhaps if they were situated alongside bike trails or pedestrian friendly locations, the choice would be more palatable, but freeway exit ramps serve only one mode of transportation and do not promote active transportation (bicycling, walking, and transit) in the least. As a result, when you have the change over between classes, legions of students at ext ramp campuses are seldom seen rushing to class on foot, on skateboards, or by bike. Instead, there are sequential mini-rush hours of cars jockeying for parking spaces.
Situating academic sites along a freeway exit ramp in the suburbs presents many of the same reverse-commuting problems for low-income and disadvantaged individuals as the suburban migration of offices has over tha past few decades. mass transit might be great for commuting into town, but the opposite is not necessarily true.
Fortunately, there are some notable exceptions to the epidemic of exit ramp academics. In particular, Davenport University is adaptively reusing a building in downtown Lansing, Michigan for their new local campus. Likewise, one of their campuses in Grand Rapids. Michigan is situated downtown. Many kudos to Davenport for making these smart land use choices. At the same time, it should be noted that these two plus the downtown Battle Creek campus represent three of its many locations across the state.
While these suburban campuses certainly serve a purpose and fulfill a market niche, one has to wonder if these glittering exit ramp sites generate the kind of “complete academic experience” or will generate the some semblance of “alumni nostalgia” that one finds at a traditional college or university. In the end, that issue is one for each student to decide for themselves.
As planners, perhaps one solution to this trend and to help reduce the onset of mini-rush hours is to clearly articulate in the community’s zoning ordinance that educational institutions, whether for profit or not, are NOT a commercial land use permitted by right, but are instead either an institutional use or a use which requires a special use permit in commercial or office zoning districts. At the very least, a special use permit will allow the Planning Commission to place conditions on the use to address community concerns.
Otherwise, the master plan should be employed a useful way of pinpointing those future locations where the community wishes to see academic land uses situated. This should be done both on the future land use map, as well as within the text of the document, particularly within the goals and objectives section of the plan. Without clearly articulated parameters to go by, the appropriateness of such uses at a give location then becomes a matter of interpretation.
One preference could be to guide these academic uses toward downtown and midtown locations where a greater range of viable transportation options are available to promote walking, cycling, and use of mass transit. It could also be seen as a way to help revitalize these parts of the city, as well as making higher education more accessible (and hopefully more affordable) to low-income and disadvantaged individuals in the community.
Please feel free to pass along any experiences you or your community have encountered regarding exit ramp academics as well as any planning suggestions for their proper siting.