By reimagining the framework for collaboration among business, facilities, and planning communities, we aspire to create a broader institutional conversation about the existing and future challenges facing the business of higher education, with a specific focus on the campus and how to creatively serve students through its physical assets. A team of industry veterans* was pulled together by NACUBO, APPA, and business partner Gordian in the spring of 2022. This stellar team drafted a framework for improved collaboration that we expect will be built upon and ultimately improved by active industry professionals.
The underlying struggles facing higher education before the pandemic are familiar to most in the industry. Unfavorable demographic trends, shrinking financial resource pools, ever-expanding technology demands, inequitable access, and stratospheric student debt among graduates all have been widely publicized and discussed. The pandemic accelerated the extent to which institutional leaders had to confront the challenges each school has been facing, and its effects on education have made it clear that there’s no turning back.
No issue has been more widely discussed than the basic variable of the pool of available students. Economist Nathan Grawe’s work demonstrates not only the downturn in the available number of domestic traditional college-age students, but also the transformation in the demographic mix that may very well reduce the number of those students who opt for college in the first place. For those students who choose college, changing expectations will further exacerbate the disconnect between the campus as it is today and what those new students will want and need from their college.
Fundamentally, the dynamics around which higher education was built—a society profoundly enthusiastic about the value of in-person residential higher education driving an expanding pool of students and strong financial metrics—are simply no longer at play. Public opinion about the value of a college degree is waning to an extent we’ve never seen before.
What is required now is an enthusiastic embrace of the unprecedented rate and scale of change in the way the business of education must be undertaken. The ongoing evolution in every key variable, starting with the instructional paradigm itself, will force bold action to transform the foundations of this learning community. Everything leaders thought they knew about managing these institutions has changed. These are indeed adaptive challenges requiring significant effort by the entire enterprise.
If the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near…
Significant energy is already being applied to impacts on teaching modalities, enrollment management implications, student service resources, and more. Yet, much remains to be explored regarding the built environment, the organizations responsible for it, and the implications it has for the rest of the academic enterprise. To help underscore the critical need for leaders to have open, frank, action-oriented discussions about the changes that are necessary in the built environment and the urgency of attending to them, here are three key data points that should give some perspective:
- The higher education enterprise is responsible for more than 6.2 billion sq. ft. of floor space in 210,000-plus buildings.
- The replacement value exceeds $2 trillion.
- The current backlog of urgent capital renewal needs exceeds $112 billion.
The ongoing investment in stewardship of these spaces has been challenged for decades by demands for increased resources to continue campus expansion. The challenge grew significantly during the Great Recession, when dollars for recurring investment were redirected to address more pressing operational challenges, opening up a nearly 20% shortfall. That shortfall has expanded during the pandemic to an epic 40% gap between dollars needed to sustain the existing campus and money made available to invest.¹
Compounding this challenge is the ongoing trend across higher education to increase space beyond enrollment demands, thus increasing the liability that the built environment places on diminishing institutional resources.
Directly to this point, in a survey conducted in January 2022,² the behaviors of nearly 50% of survey respondents indicated that despite enrollment, budget, and staffing challenges, campus growth will continue.
Challenges to Financial Sustainability
Some of the inclination to continue as always is understandable. The existing business model isn’t necessarily set up to be dynamic, despite the transformation that occurred by necessity in the spring of 2020 with the dramatic pandemic response in the United States. The debt burden of the existing campus is rarely fully accounted for, and even where it is, it is underfunded. Physical contraction of unique campus spaces is so improbable for most campuses full of education-specific buildings that removal of assets in the building portfolio has become essentially unthinkable. Contrary to pressing trends, the historically slow pace of change in pedagogy means that space transformation urgency has been rare and localized.
In essence, higher education remains reactive. Although the industry responded effectively to the pandemic to ensure its very survival, decision makers are disincentivized to change long term. Unfortunately, there has been a practical financial disconnect between programmatic aspirations and resource reality. Therefore, it remains difficult to convince participants that this time is any different.
Facilities are particularly vulnerable to the current transformational pressures on space, technology, and human resource capabilities because of the extraordinary energy and cost required to realize the changes that will be necessary. It has become more palatable to ask for minimal modifications than to confront the reality that the spaces of yesterday may simply not work for the needs of tomorrow.
Hence, facilities are becoming increasingly out of sync with the emerging context.
What to Do: A Call to Action
Facilities actions must move from a lagging response to a leading planning element.
We are asserting that planning must be transformed. No longer can facilities and the organizations that steward them be asked to simply respond to the next trend of change in play.
In fact, higher education has intentionally crafted “timeless” campuses that enable all manner of remarkable educational endeavors and countless associated activities that have been in high demand. Those spaces built to address yesterday’s challenges have continued to be adapted and modified to address the next set of incremental changes. Some of those efforts have been successful and others haven’t. All have come at great effort and expense. This long-standing practice worked when large pools of eligible students guaranteed adequate financial resources. Hence, this reactive financial model has been acceptable—until now.
Moving forward, developing new academic programs and changing existing academic and cocurricular programs will require significant campus transformation. Ever-shrinking resources must be employed exactly where they will serve the institution most effectively. They, in turn, will require organizational integration from the outset.
Why? In almost all instances, programmatic changes are facilities changes. Those changes may in fact reveal that not all space used today is necessary tomorrow. But not all space is equally flexible, and careful coordination of programmatic and space changes can make the most effective use of campus space. Furthermore, we have long known that service and utility infrastructure is not infinitely expandable, and that money “lost” to expansion of such services when adequate resources are already available is simply unacceptable. The collective desire to leverage technology is a double-edged sword that must be managed carefully. While technology can in many cases dramatically improve user experiences, it comes with accelerated replacement cycles (in the extreme think smartboard and chalkboard), infrastructural demands, and accelerating training expectations for those caring for it. When the technology being considered is operational technology, it requires advanced knowledge of the technology and the operational equipment and systems, further shrinking the pool of available talent and increasing the cost to secure such people. Finally, as the pandemic taught us, even empty buildings require resources to maintain them. Campuses that do anticipate this need may be facing immense investment in unutilized spaces as teaching and working become more flexible, hybridized, and even virtual.
We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.
Undoubtedly, the campus defines more about the future of the school than is frequently understood. Paying attention to the information the campus facilities infrastructure is providing us has never been more urgent or more critical to ensuring resources are optimized and meaningful change is implemented. So, what are your facilities telling you and how might you act differently moving forward? These are at least four focus areas to organize your thinking on this question:
- Embodied debt: Current demands being made by campus buildings can’t be ignored and are more and more becoming concerns to institutional budgets.
- Risk exposure: Personal safety, program support and investment disruptions must all be considered.
- Future program compatibility: Ongoing instructional paradigm shifts are becoming harder and harder to accommodate successfully.
- Adaptability: As time goes on, the nature of the campus becomes ever more linked to the built environment and more and more challenging to adapt to an evolving customer profile and more diverse community needs.
Actions to Take
Taking all the changes that will occur over the next few decades, institutional leaders need to start a process now that considers their physical structures and engagement within those structures to ensure their campus meets the needs of students. Organizing the conversation and correlated statements for exploration can be done through a three-part strategic framework.
- Plans for Place: The voices engaged in and processes associated with creating your campus spaces to ensure alignment of your built environment with your mission/vision, resources, and the way(s) you go to market.
- Resources for Service: The people, processes, and money needed for lifecycle renewal, refurbishment, renovation, and adaptation of your facilities and utilities infrastructure to ensure operational needs and opportunities are addressed.
- Assessment for Stewardship: Methods, metrics, and measures used to determine and sustain the viability and feasibility of your campus built environment.
The following are the current thoughts on provocative and guiding statements that can be used to stimulate an engaged discussion on this issue for your campus.
Plans for Place
- Substantive alterations to program offerings and the space resources needed require leadership decision-making with measurable outcomes.
- Ensure the alignment of critical campus planning voices for new space, existing space use, and lessons learned from the pandemic.
- Competition in the marketplace is evolving and will require prioritization of your institution’s offering to be sustainable.
- Ensure your institution plan links today’s realities with the institution’s future state while maintaining flexibility and adaptability of response and associated circumstances.
- Assess those facilities that cannot or should not be sustained and map out a plan for their removal.
Resources for Service
- Determine whether the planning and budgeting model presently in use is informing your future operating circumstances.
- Assess whether the use of your assets (buildings, technology, human resources) align with the evolving institutional program.
- Effectively maintain and operate your physical assets with an eye on successfully managing the risks they present.
- Establish an effective way to align space and program needs that includes a method(s) to manage space demands and use. Alter space use practice and needs to match evolving teaching and working practices.
Assessment for Stewardship
- Identify the tools you are or need to be using to measure success.
- Determine whether your plan is adaptable for multiple future scenarios or simply a vision/hope.
- Assess whether your facilities decisions going forward are a lagging investment and what action(s) you will take and/or the things you will stop doing.
A Call to Participate!
Planning must be transformed whereby facilities actions move from a lagging response to a leading planning element at our institutions. This will require a bold, collaborative approach to drive a forward-looking, futures-focused decision-making process by the entire community. To further refine, test and advance this framework in service of emerging institutional precedence, we are seeking your distinctive feedback on the guiding statements and proposed actions assembled through this initiative. We eagerly invite you to engage with us via the brief survey below to share your thoughts and lend your expertise to the implementation/adoption of these forward-thinking, adaptive planning principles across higher ed.
If you would like to extend this conversation and share your perspective on this new framework, we encourage you to engage with the authors listed below.
Jim Hundrieser – firstname.lastname@example.org
About NACUBO: The National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO) is the leading source of information for campus business and finance professionals, providing a bold voice, collaboration, and resources to tackle higher education’s evolving challenges.
Lander Medlin – email@example.com
About APPA: APPA (formerly the Association of Physical Plant Administrators) offers a wealth of informational resources, continuous learning programs, and opportunities to connect and network with fellow facilities professionals in a welcoming and inclusive environment.
Eric Nolan – firstname.lastname@example.org
Pete Zuraw – email@example.com
About Gordian: Gordian is the leading provider of facility and construction cost data, software and services for all phases of the building lifecycle.
1Gordian, The State of Facilities in Higher Education, 9th ed., 2022.
2APPA/Gordian, “APPA/Gordian State of Facilities Survey – Summary of Results,” January 2022, https://www.appa.org/analytics/appa-surveys.
Jim Hundrieser, is vice president consulting services at NACUBO in Washington, DC, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is his first article for Facilities Manager. Lander Medlin is president and CEO of APPA in Alexandria, VA, and can be reached at email@example.com. Eric Nolan is associate account executive at Gordian in Greenville, SC, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is his first article for Facilities Manager. Pete Zuraw is vice president market strategy and development at Gordian in Greenville, SC, and can be reached at email@example.com. This is his first article for Facilities Manager.