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The cumulative capacity of American colleges grew by 26 percent between fiscal years 2009 and 2019, according to federal data compiled for a report released last year by EY-Parthenon, a consulting company, while enrollment increased by only 3 percent. The annual cost to colleges of carrying the resulting three million to five million excess seats, and extra personnel, the report’s authors write, could be as high as $50 billion.
That excess might have remained a simmering problem for colleges, but the advent of Covid-19 accelerated conversations about campus space, forcing leaders to ponder new enrollment levels, new classroom configurations, and new office routines. Some colleges were already in the process of reining in their physical footprints, inspired by budget or sustainability concerns to slow down or halt new construction, or even decommission buildings that no longer served their purpose. Now, higher education’s physical campuses sit at the edge of a sea change that promises generational transformation.
It may not appear that campuses are on the verge of a revolution in space usage. Instances of colleges substantially shrinking their physical footprints remain rare — out of several hundred institutions working with the construction and consulting firm Gordian, only five have reduced their square footage by 5 percent or more, says Nathaniel Pramuk, regional director for operations. But scaling back or rethinking space is “a common topic across the board,” he says. Many college leaders are probably “trying not to over-respond to what we experienced in the last year, but also trying to take advantage of the opportunity that’s in front of a lot of institutions now to make some changes that are historically really challenging decisions to make.”
As with many effects of the pandemic, the pressure to consider changes to physical space is not evenly distributed. Large public institutions, which may encompass millions of square feet of facilities and often run on lean budgets, may be taking the closest looks at their space needs. Wealthy institutions, on the other hand, “want to just return to business as usual,” says Tyler Patrick, chair of planning and a principal at Sasaki, a design and planning company. In fact, many selective institutions, including large public flagships, have experienced record applications and enrollments during the pandemic, and are more likely worried about overflow housing and dining than cutting back on space.
But even well-resourced institutions are realizing that space issues could be on the horizon for them, too. At Florida State University, in Tallahassee, for example, the building of new facilities had become a default assumption in the master plan, says Dave Irvin, the senior associate vice president for facilities. But revenues can be unpredictable, and the cost of building new facilities and maintaining the aging ones continues to rise.
When Covid hit, it was a time to consider the bigger picture, says Irvin, and to “take a step back and say, Let’s look at those long-term trends because they’re not sustainable.”
When the costs of an aging campus start to mount, especially when money for facilities or construction is tight, colleges may consider whether they need some of the physical space they have.
When Ward arrived at Missouri in 2005, the annual budget for facilities maintenance was about $15 million, but the university had deferred-maintenance needs of about $28 million a year. “We knew we had to start doing something significant to get the blood flow stopped,” he says.
Ward found a solution in a process that had been in use during his time at Penn State: building audits. By looking at a building’s value, maintenance and renovation needs, and likely future uses, Ward and his staff came up with a number known as a Facilities Condition Needs Index, or FCNI. So, if a building has a score of 0.4, that “means 40 percent of that building is deficient in relation to the replacement value of that building,” Ward says. At that level, “it’s probably going to be cheaper to gut the building or tear it down.” By the time the entire Missouri campus had been audited, in 2008, more than a quarter of its structures had an FCNI score of 0.4 or higher.
The data from the audits helped Ward and university leaders make decisions about which buildings to fix, which ones to replace, and which ones wouldn’t be needed anymore.
Last spring, after several years of looking at audit data, the university announced that it would be tearing down nine buildings, most of them dating from the 19th or early 20th century, and not replacing them with new buildings or additional square footage. Read Hall, for example, was built as a women’s dormitory in 1903 and currently houses the history department. Its audit revealed it needed interior structural work, increased accessibility, new fire-alarm and -suppression systems, and upgrades to electrical, plumbing, and other systems. It earned an FCNI score of 0.59. Renovating Read Hall would cost an estimated $3.8 million, while replacing it would cost $6.4 million.
But there’s no need even to replace the buildings being torn down, because space is sitting empty elsewhere on campus. And reducing the number of buildings that the university has to maintain increases the resources it can apply to its other facilities. The university estimates that reducing its nearly 20 million square feet of facilities by about a million square feet will eliminate $94 million in deferred-maintenance costs, and $2.5 million in annual operating expenses.
There are ways to shed space besides the wrecking ball. Colleges may look to sell buildings that are not strategically close to campus, or end agreements on leased space. They may seek out partnerships with local companies and deals with private capital to finance construction projects that diffuse cost and risk. Pramuk, of Gordian, says many colleges are asking themselves, “How can we a little bit better insulate ourselves from any space that we’re carrying that is not really core to the mission and purpose of the university?”
How can we a little bit better insulate ourselves from any space that we’re carrying that is not really core to the mission and purpose of the university?
Many colleges are likely to take a more-measured approach to downsizing: Rather than permanently reducing their square footage as a matter of principle, they may be judicious about adding or replacing any. While enrollment in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system has been declining for a decade — between fiscal years 2011 and 2021 total enrollment decreased from 279,294 to 223,013, according to the system, a drop of 20 percent — the total square footage on its campuses has remained more or less the same. In 2014 the system Board of Trustees mandated that new buildings be constructed only when necessary.
The Minnesota system’s policy has increased square footage in some cases, and reduced it in others. At the Minnesota State Community and Technical College campus at Moorhead, for example, the automotive- and diesel-technology programs needed a larger building because today’s agricultural and construction equipment “is incredibly complex and big, and they couldn’t get that stuff into the facilities anymore,” says Brian Yolitz, the system’s associate vice chancellor for facilities. Other campuses are in the process of replacing academic buildings with structures that are smaller, make more efficient use of space, and have more-flexible classroom configurations.
At Minnesota State at Mankato, for example, the system plans to replace Armstrong Hall, one of its primary academic buildings. Dating from 1964, it contains almost half of the general-purpose classrooms on the campus, but they’re clustered in the center of the building with no access to natural light, “and because of the structural grid, there’s not much they could do in terms of remodeling to make those classrooms more flexible,” says Michelle Gerner, director of capital planning and analysis for the system. Plans call for a replacement facility that’s about 44,000 square feet smaller, she says, “with the idea that the new building will have flexible spaces that can be arranged for different types of classes, and much more of a focus on active learning.”
In some cases, reducing space can catalyze campus modernization. Salem State University, a public institution, sits spread across three sites in the town of Salem, just outside Boston. The university is in the midst of a deal to sell its 22-acre South Campus and use the proceeds to fund the construction of a new science and health-care complex on the North Campus. Such a complex has long been a goal for Salem State, says Karen House, vice president for finance and facilities.
House says she can’t comment on the anticipated price for the land, but developers are expected to bid in order to alleviate local housing shortages. “We’re providing more suitable space for those academic programs, and also relieving ourselves of the burden of the deferred maintenance that exists on South Campus, and also providing a real asset and opportunity to our local community,” she says. “Win, win, win.”
Regularly replacing facilities gave some unit heads false expectations, Irvin says, who summed up their thinking this way: “Why should I look at ways to try to reinvest or ways to be entrepreneurial in terms of investing in existing space if you’re going to give me a new one?” Under a recently adopted policy, new capital projects at Florida State must raise money for an endowment for long-term maintenance and renewal alongside the cash for design and construction. The policy requires a bigger ask of donors, but it also helps everyone understand the full cost of operating a building over time. Irvin recalls a recent meeting with the dean of a college that was supposed to get three new buildings in the previous master plan. The amount of money that would need to be raised under the new policy was clearly prohibitive, Irvin says, so now they’re discussing how to repurpose some facilities and raise money to do so. It’s “not a conversation we had with him before, because he was assuming at some point in the future, he was going to get new buildings.”
Renovating older buildings and keeping them in use can bring disadvantages. Longstanding problems can be difficult to resolve: A renovated building at Florida State has had persistent mold, among other issues. Sparkling new facilities often make an impression when prospective students tour a campus, a special concern in a system like Minnesota State, where many institutions struggle to meet enrollment goals. Presidents in the system tell Yolitz that students tour campuses in neighboring states “’and they see bright, shiny stuff, and then they come on my campus, it’s dull and dingy, it’s 1963,’” Yolitz says. That’s one of the reasons the system continues to greenlight smaller replacement facilities.
Changes in facilities usage that were made necessary by Covid-19 have also spurred a broader rethinking of space. At Florida State, the pandemic is reshaping plans for the student counseling center. Before Covid, college leaders believed they would need to make more room for counseling appointments, but Irvin says many students liked the flexibility of meeting over Zoom. “We went from a student counseling area that we thought they needed three times the square footage to now they don’t need any more square footage, they just need it reconfigured in a different way.”
Changes in facilities usage that were made necessary by Covid-19 have also spurred a broader rethinking of space.
Florida State is also altering plans for its new College of Business building, which had initially called for a number of large lecture halls and traditional classroom spaces. “We found that for those survey classes, Zoom works pretty well, as opposed to the 450-seat auditorium where you’re in the back row and you’re watching it on a monitor anyway,” Irvin says. “And maybe some of the other classrooms need to be more interactive to take advantage of that place-based learning.”
Covid-19 promises to change a lot of considerations about campus space, especially in the classroom, says Patrick of Sasaki. If more classes incorporate online lectures or other remote instruction, classrooms are freed up for more courses. However, instructors and students may want to make more of the time spent in person “to do more active and engaged learning” he adds, “and so the types of spaces that you need are often more of those flat-floor classroom spaces that have a higher space per seat.” Larger, more flexible classroom spaces and so-called flipped classrooms have become more common in new college buildings and refurbishments, but they have been slow to supplant older, more rigid spaces.
“We were having these exact conversations before Covid was even a thing,” Patrick says, “but it has been an accelerant.”
Like many other workplaces, colleges were forced to work remotely and found not only that it could be done, but that some employees preferred the arrangement. As colleges began bringing administrators and other office workers back to campus, business-as-usual seemed inadequate. If quiet, heads-down work can be easily done at home, does everyone need to come to campus every day? And if an employee is coming to campus only part-time, or primarily for more collaborative work, does he or she need a private office with a door? It’s possible that some college workplaces will evolve into “the WeWork model of space,” Patrick says, where employees need “a place to touchdown, they need a place to plug in their laptop, and more than anything, they need a place that has access to meeting rooms.”
But what the college office of the future looks like will depend a lot on what kind of office it is. At Florida State, the information-technology staff probably won’t come back to campus at all, because they can do their work remotely. For other units, such as the purchasing office, much of the work can be accomplished off campus but some in-person collaborations will be necessary, so the university is considering “hoteling” spaces, with unassigned offices for temporary use and access to meeting rooms. Leaders at Salem State plan on making many of the university’s administrative positions remote or hybrid full-time, and reducing the amount of office space it leases. House says one analysis estimates the institution could reduce its administrative office-space needs for some units from about 33,000 square feet to about 12,000 square feet.
The prospect of reimagining, and ultimately reducing, office space holds clear benefits for colleges. The University of Maryland Global Campus, known as UMGC, the system’s adult-student-focused online arm, owns two large headquarters buildings in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., that before the pandemic served as the workplace for about 1,400 administrators, success coaches, advisers, and other service providers for its 90,000 students worldwide. In the wake of Covid-19, surveys have revealed that employees prefer working from home at least part of the time, says Joseph A. Sergi, senior vice president and chief operating officer. Offering remote work makes the university a more competitive employer and will save it money by allowing it to ultimately reduce its physical space.
But becoming largely virtual presents formidable hurdles for a workplace’s culture. During a recent virtual meeting with about 40 UMGC managers, the conversation didn’t seem right, Sergi says. “It just wasn’t as free-flowing” as a discussion among coworkers who’d been in the office together all week. “The biggest challenge is the long tail of culture,” Sergi adds. “How do you ensure that if you’re going to stay primarily remote/hybrid, that employees are connected to mission?”
And while administrative offices may be up for reconsideration, faculty offices are another matter. “Most clients are not willing to go there yet,” says Patrick, of Sasaki. “That’s still the sacred cow.” At some institutions, such as Florida State, many junior faculty members are “more than willing to explore alternative office layouts,” says Irvin. But many senior faculty members consider private offices hard-won privileges.
Internal constituencies may be as wary of reducing or repurposing space as external ones. “It can be very easy to view a contracting campus as weak,” says Pramuk, of Gordian, “or maybe we’re giving up, for lack of a better phrase.” On a more granular level, taking a building offline or not replacing an aging building with a new one could signal to the people housed there that they aren’t as valued. Leaders can head off misunderstanding by communicating how the space plan relates to the institution’s mission: “If you can really change your focus to investing in your core, that can be much more beneficial in the long run to the future of your university.” Filling in faculty and staff members on the long-term plans can also help them make sense of any short-term sacrifices, he adds, “so that people know when their turn might be coming up.”
The best tool in parsing the need for reducing or repurposing space is data. Having hard data about whether a structure can and should be replaced or refurbished doesn’t make the money easier to come by, but it grounds the decision in difficult-to-deny facts.
While data wouldn’t override whether a building is historic or important to the campus, Ward says, not every old building is historic. The University of Missouri’s announcement that Read Hall, its first women’s residence hall, would be one of the buildings demolished has been met with some opposition from students, including a petition with nearly 3,000 signatures. Ward says he has also received concerned calls from alumni, and he’s met with a few. He’s gone over a PowerPoint presentation regarding building data and costs, he says, “and when I’m done it’s like, OK, I see the size of the problem.”
Ward adds that he once gave a presentation about downsizing the campus at a national gathering of his facilities peers, and some attendees told him they would never tear down buildings and reduce space at their institutions. But just like the United States, he says, many of the nation’s colleges have not done a good job of keeping up with their infrastructure, and the price tag for fixing it all climbs higher and higher. If they don’t reduce their space or use it more efficiently, he says, “I don’t know how you’re going to fix your problem.”