Plans filed for major new Jayhawk Welcome Center along Oread Avenue; $21M project designed to boost student recruitment

photo by: Courtesy: City of Lawrence/Helix

A $21 million welcome center along Oread Avenue — full of modern design and high-tech displays — is the latest strategy for the University of Kansas to woo prospective students to the Lawrence campus.

Plans have been filed at Lawrence City Hall for a new glass and steel structure, dubbed the Jayhawk Welcome Center, to be built alongside the existing, traditional Adams Alumni Center at 1266 Oread Ave.

“We think a facility like this can be so critical,” Heath Peterson, president of the KU Alumni Association, told me. “We know the campus visit is one of the most important factors when it comes to college choice. If we can win the campus visit by showing the career success our students have and by showing what it really means to be a Jayhawk, we think we can be very successful.”

Peterson said the idea for the facility has been in the works for about four years, and fundraising for the project has been completed. The entire $21 million new structure will be funded through private donors. Construction work, pending permit approvals from City Hall, is scheduled to begin this summer.

The Alumni Association also hopes to start work this year on a complete renovation of the existing Adams Alumni Center, which will be connected to the new structure. Fundraising is underway for that project, which is likely to cost around $10 million, Peterson said.

The Jayhawk Welcome Center largely will take the place of the current KU Visitors Center at 15th and Iowa Streets, which is located near the student dormitories on Daisy Hill. Peterson said the location along Oread Avenue — and just around the corner from Jayhawk Boulevard — has some real advantages.

The center basically will be across the street from the Kansas Union and its large public parking garage. It also creates a different first impression than the Daisy Hill location. Many of KU’s most iconic buildings — Fraser Hall, Dyche Hall and others — will be immediately visible from the center.

Plans call for about 20 employees of the KU Admissions office to be located in the center, along with the student ambassadors who provide guided tours of the university. Being able to simply step out of the center and start walking through the heart of campus will be a benefit, Peterson said.

“Right now, we put a lot of prospective students on a bus and drive them across campus a lot,” Peterson said. “That may not always be a benefit.”

Peterson is particularly excited about what will be inside the center. The expansion is slated to be about 30,000 square feet of space, spread over two floors and a basement level. A “Traditions Hall” will be located on two floors. The exhibit area will include a variety of displays and selfie stations, with a heavy emphasis on digital storytelling, Peterson said. It will drive home the success that KU graduates have had in multiple fields, highlight the networking opportunities that a KU degree provides, and give prospective students a glimpse at the traditions and atmosphere of the university, among other items.

“We will create a very compelling storytelling experience inside the facility about what it means to be a Jayhawk,” Peterson said.

The new facility also will include a large lobby, two new event spaces and a catering kitchen, among other features. Peterson said the event space likely would accommodate up to a 200-person banquet. The event space, plus related presentation rooms, will be used by admissions as part of the Welcome Center, but also will be available to the Alumni Association during certain weekends and evenings to increase the capacity of events that the Alumni Center can host. The expansion will take up most of the onsite parking at the Alumni Center. The center already uses the KU parking garage across the street for many of its events.

The two buildings will be connected — a dichotomy of old and new. The Adams Alumni Center dates back to 1983, but it was built in an architectural style of an even older era. The Jayhawk Welcome Center will be a much more modern design. The Kansas City-based firm Helix Architecture + Design is the lead architect for the project. But Peterson said the Alumni Association and KU leaders settled on the design after consulting with more than 100 upper-level students in KU’s School of Architecture & Design.

Peterson said there was some initial concern that the modern design of the facility might be too jarring next to the more traditional design of the alumni center, but the students advocated for the importance of a modern facility to appeal to teenagers and prospective students.

Ultimately, KU leaders began to see the importance of that too, given that a primary function of the building will be to get young people excited about the KU campus.

Indeed, recruiting prospective students has become a much more competitive venture over the last decade. KU’s enrollment on the Lawrence campus was at just under 24,000 students in the fall of 2020. In 2011, those totals were near 25,500 students.

Enrollment declines are happening at many universities across the country. The pandemic has accelerated the trend, but it clearly was underway before COVID-19. Some of it is demographics, related to a period of lower birth rates that are now producing smaller numbers of high school graduates. Rising tuition costs and concerns about mounting student debt also are depressing the number of potential students nationwide.

“We want to reshape the first impression of the university, in part, because we acknowledge there are tremendous enrollment pressures in higher education right now,” Peterson said.

Peterson said the Alumni Association was pleased to become a partner on the project, in part because it is a good investment in the future of the association, which has about 40,000 members currently.

“Prospective students become prospective alumni,” he said.

Look for a groundbreaking in early summer, with a planned completion of the center at some point in the next school year. Pending fundraising efforts, Peterson also hopes the renovation of the existing alumni center can be completed in the next school year.

There is no word yet on how the existing KU Visitors Center at 1502 Iowa St. may be repurposed in the future.

photo by: Kevin Anderson

The Adams Alumni Center on the KU campus.

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