Higher Education Facilities: Doing More with Less Money

Tom Wiggins
Higher education facilities are facing tough times. Enrollment growth means that institutions’ facilities budgets need to work harder to fund today’s demanding requirements. “Doing more with less” is the necessary catchphrase.

After experiencing average enrollment growth of more than five percent for 2007 through 2009, the pace slowed in 2010 then flattened or possibly fell slightly in fall 2011. Currently, the National Center for Education Statistics predicts enrollment growth of about two percent annually through 2019.

Post secondary enrollment chart 

Several factors contribute to this growth in higher education enrollment. The tail end of the baby boom echo is moving through our higher education institutions now. Some of those who became unemployed during recession went back to school. Government initiatives, such as President Obama’s 21st Century Initiative, encourage enrollment growth. For community colleges, the goal is an additional five million graduates by 2020. The American Association of Community Colleges reported 2011 enrollment figures of 8.2 million.

Higher enrollment numbers exacerbate facility delivery and maintenance problems, experienced because of funding cuts.

Higher education faces a funding crisis as does many of our nation’s public institutions. Funding cuts are a widespread problem as states attempt to balance their budgets with generally declining revenues. They have the pressure of increased needs for government services as unemployment remains high. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) helped soften the effects on education, but this source of funding has ended. The inevitable results are higher tuition costs and funding cutbacks; coinciding falling endowments only made matters worse.

The Squeeze on Facilities Budgets 

Capital and maintenance programs are inevitably squeezed when learning universities face reduced budgets. With limited resources, maintenance backlog – an ongoing issue for higher education – often increases. This combines with delayed capital projects placing a strain on existing facilities and staff.

The Bureau of the Census construction data shows higher education construction spending fell in 2010 after several years of increased spending. Sustained growth of construction put in place reflects a commitment to fund construction projects before the recession to meet the demands of rising enrollments. Early 2012 construction projections offer some hope for growth in 2012 after two years of decline. In 2011, more than 55 percent of the cost was for instructional facilities and about 20 percent was for housing.

Higher education construction chart 

2011 Higher Education construction 

Major Campus Cost Drivers

Campus appearance, facility quality, safety and security are significant factors when universities are competing for students. Information technology (IT) is also key, as campus-wide connectivity is critical in all aspects of a student’s activities.

Technology changes rapidly and facilities must be able to adapt. The cost of implementing new technologies is an important consideration. Greater computer and video use increases heat loads in the classrooms, leading to higher HVAC costs; data and video capabilities increase electrical costs.

In addition to the IT challenges, Faithful+Gould Operations Director Wing Long observes that while providing the latest technology facilities, such as IT media centers, and technology infrastructure is important, “student community facilities and services and creating an environmentally friendly campus” are also priorities.

Sustainability is an important driver for universities. An environmentally friendly campus is an increasingly significant differentiator. Vic Clements, director of administration with The University Financing Foundation (TUFF), remarks, “Institutions are focusing ever more effort on their sustainability initiatives, particularly as it relates to their facilities. Students are pushing for this change and the community has learned that in many cases increased energy efficiency efforts can be paid for from savings.”

He sees this trend across both public and private universities, regardless of size. “An efficiently run facility/campus is good for students, the environment and ultimately the financial well-being of the institution.” 

The Changing Classroom

Classroom buildings may include faculty offices and student interaction spaces. Classrooms are increasingly interactive and collaborative settings, with complex requirements around audio/visual, acoustical, lighting and controls. Space flexibility is also needed to accommodate different instructional settings, e.g. shifting between large lectures and small groups.

Technology and flexibility requirements increase classroom square foot costs. Larger open classrooms, which may include tiered and non-tiered configurations, have higher structural costs. Tiered classrooms increase floor-to-floor heights, also increasing costs. A national average cost for a typical classroom building is between $300 and $400 per square foot. Construction cost varies depending on specific institution building type requirements. The setting, an urban location or a historic district for instance, will also influence cost. Where universities make architectural “statements” in public spaces, such as atriums, results in a higher than typical cost per square foot.

The following chart shows a typical construction cost breakdown by building element for a new classroom building.

Classroom uniformat breakdown

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