March 24, 2023

Universal Design for Higher Education Spaces: Why it Matters

Belonging. Over the last few years, this word has found its way into higher education’s vocabulary. With Covid, politics, and now enrollment declines imminent, the quest to increase (and retain) students is on the mind of every campus administrator. Belonging found at the vin intersections of inclusion, diversity, and equity—promises that an organization fully engages potential, where innovation thrives, and views, beliefs, and values are integrated.  

A glimpse of every mission/vision statement will reveal words like respect, equity, and inclusion and looking at the cast of roles and departments found on a campus, one you will usually find is an office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI)—charged with fulfilling the mission that enacted their raison d’etre. An important vehicle to lead the charge, but is one dedicated office enough? Or should campus leadership begin to think critically about how they can advance this mission from the institution’s collective unique vantage point instead of from just one department? An example of this thinking is found in the ideals of Universal Design. 

Universal Design (UD) is dedicated to creating spaces where everyone is given what they need to succeed. While grounded in ADA (the Americans with Disabilities Act), it offers far more potential for inclusion. Universal Design dares us to look further than differences in physical abilities or disabilities. It is an opportunity to form a space where physical and social barriers are removed to create an environment that was designed with everyone in mind. Campuses that embrace Universal Design are committed to their mission, and building with diversity demonstrates a capacity for transformative change. Spaces that are purposefully accessible and welcoming to the broadest range of potential students are physical representations of understanding the educational value of an inclusive student body.  

More than 6% of college students have disabilities (Horn & Nevill, 2006; Lewis & Farris, 1991; National Center for Education Statistics, 2000), varying between physical, visual, learning, attention, and communication differences. If the intention is to foster maximum potential for one’s academic excellence, institutions must start with demolishing barriers and optimizing pathways for learning. 

When a university implements UD as a literal foundation, it acts as a subliminal DEI reminder to both faculty and students. “The educational benefits of an inclusive curriculum empower all students, with some level of competence, to engage in our diverse and changing world,” says Madeline Szrom, “exposure to an inclusive curriculum helps to develop skills necessary for the diverse workplaces students will enter. These skills are an added advantage when seeking employment. Employers seek culturally competent employees” (2016). 

Integrating a UD approach when designing educational environments also bolsters admissions potential. A critical aspect of being inclusive is “the ability to imagine otherwise.” When UD is used on campus, students of varying abilities see themselves reflected and invited to be a part of it. It The use of UD can personalize the institution and create an element of familiarity and recognition. By reflecting the university mission’s of DEI commitment, UD opens unexpected outcomes, the least of which may be increases in student enrollment. 


Szrom, M. (2016, March 15). Why Cultural Competence Matters to recruiters. INSIGHT Into Diversity. Retrieved February 15, 2023, from 

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