Combating Loneliness on College Campuses: How Designers Can Help Strengthen Social Infrastructure 

Jun 05 2024

By: Amy Spruill, RID, NCIDQ

According to data from the National College Health Assessment, 50.3% of undergraduate students in 2019 reported that they feel lonely or very lonely. By spring 2022, the rate rose to 53.6%.  

Reports of loneliness have skyrocketed in the United States over the last several years, with the highest reports of loneliness in young adults ages 19 to 29. In 2023, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy released a new Surgeon General Advisory calling attention to the public health crisis of loneliness and lack of connectivity in the United States.  

“Our epidemic of loneliness and isolation has been an underappreciated public health crisis that has harmed individual and societal health. Our relationships are a source of healing and well-being hiding in plain sight – one that can help us live healthier, more fulfilled, and more productive lives,” said U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy. “Given the significant health consequences of loneliness and isolation, we must prioritize building social connections the same way we have prioritized other critical public health issues such as tobacco, obesity, and substance use disorders.”   

The loneliness epidemic amongst college students is typically associated with shutdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic which prevented young people from making connections in the classroom or through extracurricular activities. However, the issue of loneliness in college students began well before the 2020 pandemic shutdowns.  

The transition from high school to college can be difficult for students. College students are more prone to feelings of loneliness due to difficulty adjusting to new situations and making new friends, as well as being removed from previously established close relationships with family members and friends in their hometowns. Additionally, students are reporting increased feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression that are contributing to their feelings of loneliness.  

So how can universities combat the student loneliness epidemic?  

There are many ways that higher education entities can help decrease feelings of loneliness on campus. Some of these methods – such as planning campus events, supporting student clubs and organizations, and access to mental health services on campus are a few obvious solutions, but what are some avenues that universities might be overlooking in their quest to help students create connections on campus? One factor to look at is the infrastructure of their campuses.  

Defining Social Infrastructure

When you think of the word infrastructure, what images come to mind? Most likely cityscapes, suburbs, highways and railroad systems, and water, sewage, and electrical systems are the first items that most people would cite.  

Yet, physical infrastructure, such as buildings or mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems are not the only type of infrastructure society needs to run smoothly. Social infrastructure is equally as important.  

Our social connections are not only influenced by our individual interactions but can also be highly influenced by the physical elements all around us. Social infrastructure consists of policies, services, and physical resources, such as libraries, parks, and restaurants, that help strengthen our communities by encouraging people to make social connections.  

How to Strengthen Social Infrastructure on Campus

Strengthening social infrastructure requires academic institutions to invest in designing environments that promote connections, such as libraries, restaurants, recreation centers, and lounges, and to create established spaces for campus organizations and resources.  

“College campuses present endless opportunities for students, professors, and staff to form connections. Creative designers can spot opportunities for strengthening social infrastructure all over the campus map from residence halls and classrooms to interstitial spaces within and between buildings.”
Amy Spruill, RID, NCIDQ, MHAworks Principal & Greenville Office Director

There are two main types of connection opportunities that architectural design can help facilitate: 

  1. Organic opportunities – Connections formed over everyday tasks. For example, waiting in line or regularly frequenting a space (i.e., doing laundry in a laundry room or being a regular at a student recreation center).    
  1. Structured opportunities – Connections formed by opportunities surrounding an activity or organization. For example, joining a sports team or club or attending an event.  

Creating Organic Opportunities for Connection

Connective architecture encourages people to interact with their environment and engage with their surroundings, thus creating opportunities for chance encounters and impromptu conversations.  

Opportunities for connections can be made all over campus and often do not require the school to make costly investments or designers to spend too much time at the drawing board drafting innovative concepts.  

“Oftentimes, when we want to meet new people, we go to events or join clubs, but opportunities to form new social connections can be fostered by creating spaces for people to connect. As much as designers strive to create new concepts, sometimes adding simple solutions, like a collection of comfortable seating in an open area or populating an outdoor space with furniture helps to create new spaces for connections to be made.”
Amy Spruill, RID, NCIDQ

One example of creating opportunities for students to connect organically on campus can be found in and around the laundry rooms in their residence halls. Laundry rooms are (hopefully) used regularly by students, and creating comfortable spaces for students to wait for their laundry cycles to finish presents students with the opportunity to socialize with people in their building  who live on different floors or wings of the building.  

At East Carolina University (ECU) our team renovated the Greene Hall laundry room (as well as the entire residence hall) to feel welcoming, comfortable, and encourage social interaction. Tables were placed inside the laundry room, and a wooden bench was built into the wall in the hall’s lobby to give students a landing area.  


Giving Student Organizations and Resources a Permanent Home

One of the best ways to help a student feel like they belong on campus is by providing them with designated spaces on campus for them to pursue their passions and meet other students who share their interests or identities.  

Up until last year, organizations at Pitt Community College including their VISIONS Career Development and Scholarship Program and Veteran’s Center had no central location on campus. This changed when the Center for Student Advancement opened in 2023.  

The second floor of the newly constructed 28,000-square-foot Student Advancement Center provides an array of administrative and student affairs offices including the student resource center, VISIONS’ center, Veteran’s Center, and student scholarship offices. This central location for many student driven offices and many administrative representatives should not only foster more connection among PCC’s students, but also between the Colleges students and staff. 

The Student Center also contains a 3,000-square-foot event space on the first floor that can be divided into two separate rooms as well as a smaller meeting area that can serve as a pre-function space.  This larger space provides a backdrop to bring together staff, faculty, and students and their family members for events such as convocation ceremonies and the annual Academic Excellence Awards Program. 

Finding Paths Forward

The student loneliness epidemic in the United States is a very real problem and can lead to devastating consequences if it is left unaddressed. There are many potential solutions that university and community college leaders can bring to the table to address the loneliness students are facing and having the infrastructure on campus to support those initiatives is an important piece of the puzzle.  

Together, we create spaces that bring students together.