Building a New Campus: From Mediocrity to Magnificence

When it comes to building a new campus, a good business plan is what stands between mediocrity and magnificence. Here’s a look at what some administrators have done with their business plans to ensure success and reduce growing pains.

Find a Need

Does your college even need a new campus? A growing student body remains the biggest reason for investing in a new campus. "Our old campus is fully built out," says Richard Rhodes, vice president of business services, Salt Lake Community College in Utah. "Yet our community continues to grow. If we are to serve the public effectively in the future, we needed a new campus."

Demographic studies help determine that, if you build it, they will come. "You have to make sure that your target population will get to your new campus," says Scott Landsburg, who is in the middle of building a new campus for Heald College in Hayward, Calif. "Get the word out to current and potential students about your new location."

Chances are the students will find you. "Anticipate success," says James Moyer, director of facilities planning at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Mich. "We built our new campus thinking that we would grow into it. It turns out we open up this fall with fully occupied classrooms and an eye toward our next property acquisition."

Dr. Jo-Carol Faience, vice president and academic leader of Northwest Vista College (one of Alamo Community College's campuses) in San Antonio, Texas, agrees. "We started our first semester with 20 students," she says. "Now our on-campus class size of 1,800 exceeds our projections."

Even when all of the studies point to building a new campus, if the business plan doesn’t add up, the answer is no. "Our district is seeing a need for a new campus in the northeast quadrant of the city," says Faience. "Even with offers of a land donation, the school decided to annex some existing buildings and offer classes out of the main campus instead."

Landing the Deal

With strategic studies and demographic projections in hand, state and community schools can approach the legislature for funds to purchase land. "Planning and funding go hand in hand," says Moyer. "Once funds have been secured, go back to your plan and revise it if necessary."

Exactly where should you locate a new campus? Studies will point to an area of growth, and common sense dictates that it should not be too close to your existing sites. However, choosing the actual site takes cooperation. "We looked for a community that would partner with us financially," reports Rhodes.

Listening to proposals from several different towns educated Rhodes and his team about the options. Communities eager to host a campus were willing to help out financially and with issues like egress, utilities, road improvements and construction. In the end, the school purchased a plot of land that spans two towns. "They presented a joint proposal that made the most sense," he says.

Even a gift of land needs to be looked at carefully. When a large financial institution offered a site to the San Antonio Community College district, administrators employed an in-depth study to support building on it.

"Yes, the land sat in a fast-growing section of town," recalls Fabianke. "But we had to make sure that a new campus would be an appropriate use of that space." The school formed committees that included members of the legislature, community and the college to determine how best to use the parcel. In this case the solution proved not to be a new campus but a new independent college within the district.

Keep Cannibalism at Bay

Part of the business plan should determine the courses offered at the new campus. While the school should offer popular classes, it should not drain students from established campuses. Duplicating expensive labs for vocational studies doesn’t make fiscal sense either. How do you achieve the right balance?

"Our study showed a need for workforce training in semiconductor manufacturing," remembers Faience. "With two big electronics companies located nearby, we partnered with our neighbors to develop an appropriate curriculum. Our first semester classes were actually held in their facilities."

Location may also determine course choices. "There is a hospital right across the road from our new campus," says Rhodes. "Because of the interning possibilities, we moved all of our health programs to this campus."

Sometimes just being new offers an advantage. Building a structure wired to accommodate technology-heavy offerings is often easier than retrofitting an older building. "This college offers a multimedia program, Web page design, programming, network administration, PC helpdesk and an e-commerce program," says Faience.

Even with all of the high-tech vocational bells and whistles, no community college would be complete without a transfer program. Both Fabianke's and Rhodes's schools offer two-year degrees. "We still see the largest growth in the transfer program," says Rhodes.

Good, Better or Best?

After all the plans are made and curricula decided upon, ground must be broken. Looking at a large, empty parcel of land can be daunting. "We had 114 acres and plans to build just one structure," remembers Rhodes. "That brings up lots of questions. Where will the main entrance be? Will this building be the campus focal point? What materials do we use?"

Rhodes and his team decided that the first building would become the campus's high-tech center. While not the major architectural focus of the site, the building nonetheless sets the tone for future development. The team took the opportunity to set campus design guidelines to ensure continuity. "This is important from a business standpoint because, if building materials are costly or hard to obtain or easily date themselves, it affects future budgets," he explains.

David K. Stauffer, AIA, and architect for the Salt Lake Community College, explains why this point in the project is the time to take a stand. "Campuses stay around for a long time, and the buildings speak about what we as a community think of education," he says. "Do you want a quick and sleazy building or a structure that everyone can be proud of?"

No Blank Slate, But No Picnic Either

If your new campus is in an urban setting, like Moyer’s, then design standards are probably already set out in local codes. However, in-fill campuses have problems all their own. "Build extra time into your plans," he says. "When we started this project we didn't anticipate that the state would start on major road reconstruction. To accommodate the construction we had to work out of sequence, building things a year earlier than planned and putting other projects on the back burner."

Other time-eaters Moyer experienced include an unexpected lack of utilities, a state-mandated truck route through the campus that demanded road widening, and soil contaminated with hazardous materials that had to be moved before construction.

Going for the Bold

Even with all of the unavoidable problems and headaches, managers agree that planning a new campus remains worth the trouble. They fit the project into the already mixed-out schedule in different ways. Some hired project managers to take most of the responsibility. Others delegated some of their other duties to coworkers. And some just added the extra hours to their workweek. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," says Rhodes. "With something this exciting you find the time."

All of the planners suggested committing time each week for meeting with everyone involved with the project. They also keep the community in the know with an information officer who talks and listens to neighboring businesses and homeowner associations. Internal information can be shared through a Website or a project room that posts blueprints on the wall.

But, no matter how you get a new campus done, always keep the goal in sight. And set that bar high. "Don't plan mediocrity," advises Stauffer. "Be bold, and go for it."