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APPA/Gordian State of Facilities Survey – Summary of Results

In January 2022 APPA sent nearly 700 senior facilities officers a survey concerning the current pressures that are driving planning for the coming year and beyond.  This particular survey represents a continued collaboration with Gordian and their State of Facilities in Higher Education report.  We were pleased with the 125 responses we received representing an18% response rate.  The survey covered such topics as:  student enrollment; operational and capital/planning staffing, budgets, and structures; return-to-work policies; future space considerations; issues that are top of mind; and professional influence.

As we sorted through the data set, we found a number of high-level summary results.  Indeed, enrollment still lags 2019’s baseline, and most institutions (63%) recognize an expected enrollment drop by the middle of this decade (2025-2026).  Unfortunately, operational staffing and budgets have reduced or marginally stayed the same, with only 15% anticipating growth.  However, capital/planning budgets remained the same or have grown (31%) and capital/planning staff have primarily remained intact (58%).  Yet space is expected to stay the same or grow over the next five years, which indicates somewhat of a disconnect. 

Organization restructuring is only being considered by 37% of the respondents.  As for return-to-work policies, 66% expect most staff to return to the campus, with the hybrid configuration capturing 31% of the responses.  Clearly the top areas of concern center on finding employees to fill vacancies (with or without the necessary skillsets), followed by budget insufficiency and long-term enrollment concerns. 

Nonetheless, the increased influence gained as a result of the pandemic and the leadership/decision-making demonstrated by facilities professionals was overwhelmingly positive.  These statements are illustrative of the sentiments expressed:  “cemented our reputation”; “gained a critical seat at the table”; “there was more collaboration”; “demonstrated how we can adapt”; “a core team member”; “significant increase in operation credibility”; and, “resulted in increased trust and involvement in university decision-making”. 

However, after analyzing the data by institutional or Carnegie Classification, we found some interesting differentiations that have real value for further consideration.  Let’s take enrollment.  The drops or expected drops did not turn out to be based on geography, but more so students “running” to perceived value as those institutions in the top tier (Research/Doctoral and selective small private liberal arts) expect to dig deeper into their application pool to ensure meeting their enrollment needs.  Add future space considerations and there is an overwhelming focus on growth especially of on-site deliveries.  Does the “arms race” continue? 

It also appears that habits formed out of tradition and past experience are an anchor from the past and seemingly driving a pre-COVID, back to status quo mentality.  Is the thinking, “We can build ourselves out of this hole”?  Whereas most Masters/Baccalaureate and Associates (Community Colleges) institutions experienced reductions and foresee reductions from the infamous “enrollment cliff.”  They also report little operational or capital/planning staffing or budget growth.  Actually, the opposite is true.  They are definitely not on the same growth trajectory as their Research/Doctoral colleagues.  They appear to be focused primarily on maintaining their brand and holding steady, if at all possible.  Therefore, growing and/or building their way out of this situation doesn’t seem plausible.

Then there’s the conundrum of Research/Doctoral institutions’ operational staffing and budgets that experienced reductions, whereas capital/planning staffing and budgets did not experience the same level of reductions.  The margins are indeed large.  This is compelling for these institutions when compared to future space growth considerations; return-to-work policies; and, on-site campus growth, which is reflected as the expected intention.  Even in the face of the imminent “enrollment cliff,” these Research/Doctoral institutions (38%) clearly believe they can dig deep into their enrollment applications, secure the necessary students, deliver primarily on-campus venues, and therefore build their way out of this situation.  A big concern is how these facilities (existing and new) will be able to keep up with their maintenance and operations needs when operational staffing and budgets continue to be deficient or diminished.

Most now know that the Associates (Community Colleges) institutions experienced the worst drop in enrollment. They have yet to recover and are legitimately concerned about future enrollment drops.  Their response has been reductions in operational and capital/planning staffing and budgets and incorporating a more intentional blend of on-site and hybrid deliveries in their future space considerations.  In fact, these institutions recognized the significance of this enrollment concern to a much greater degree than their other institutional counterparts. 

It was interesting to also ascertain that the Masters/Baccalaureate institutions expressed a heightened concern about the “Physical campus that doesn’t match your school’s needs going forward.”  This particular disconnect has been manifesting itself for a while.

To close this out and give the survey additional context, The Chronicle of Higher Education’s latest 2022 Trends Report highlights six trends to watch this year and frankly two of them are of particular import.  The first is The Overbuilt Campus.  They recognized that COVID accelerated the enrollment drop and this is now having a direct impact on the need for institutions to reimagine their campus footprint.  The cost of buildings without the commensurate growth in student enrollment revenues is huge. This quote from The Chronicle’s trends article reinforces the point,

The cumulative physical capacity of American colleges grew by 26% 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%.  The annual cost to colleges of carrying the resulting three million to five million excess seats, the report’s authors write, could be as high as $50 billion.” 

This additional quote really cements it:  “The prospect of reimagining, and ultimately reducing, (office) space holds clear benefits for collegesThe best tool in parsing the need for reducing or repurposing space is data…it grounds the decision in difficult-to-deny facts.”

The second trend from The Chronicle is The Missing Hispanic Students.  Recognize that prior to the pandemic, this population of Hispanic students had continued to grow for the past ten years.  So, this decline is the largest of the black and brown, underserved and marginalized communities.  It is particularly concerning especially in combination with the reduction in the numbers of high school students from the imminent “enrollment cliff” of 2025-2026; the continued loss of International students; and, the 1.1 million students that have yet to reconsider a return to college after the height of the pandemic. 

It was stressed that we cannot assume that if we build it, they will come.  We must be much more intentional with such critical interventions as expanded outreach, financial aid, support services, and college-to-career services for all of our students.  Plus, although students miss the college experience, access to online classes is a game-changer for them (and many other non-traditional students).  We have much to consider that is of great import to our collective future.

E. Lander Medlin & Christina Hills
February 2022