Needs Have Changed

ast month I had a call from Judy Marks, of the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities, asking if I could provide any information on the cost effects of proposed new regulations concerning acoustics in classrooms. New standards, designed to help hearing-impaired children operate in normal classrooms, are being considered, but before proposing them the agency involved wants to assess the potential impact on the cost of building a new school. What a wonderful idea — evaluate the cost impact before implementing new rules and regulations. Why couldn’t other agencies — state and federal — do that? 

As it was, the annual report on school construction that I conduct provided no data that could assist in this area. But in looking for anything that could help, I began examining how costs of educational construction have increased over the last 20 to 25 years.

I focused on construction cost per student served, a number I began collecting in 1987 and that is a more consistent measure than cost per square foot or total cost of buildings. Normally, the district designates the number of students the building is being designed to accommodate, so dividing total cost by that number provides a consistent “cost per student” number.

The cost per student for a new high school in 1987 was $10,333. According to the Consumer Price Index, that same school in 2010 would cost $19,834 because inflation drove prices up 192 percent over those 23 years. The actual national median cost per student for a new high school in 2010 was $30,833, almost $11,000 per student more than the effect of inflation. 

To put it in more concrete terms, the median high school constructed for 1,000 students in 1987 cost $10,333,000. Based solely on the effects of inflation, it would cost $19,834,000 in 2010. But the actual national median cost of a new high school in 2010 was $30,833,000. The calculations for elementary and middle schools were about the same — cost increased more than inflation.

Why the increase? There are several factors to be considered. The most obvious being that duplicating a 1987 building today would mean constructing a school for a world that no longer exists. In 1987, as an example, if someone on the construction site had to call his office to answer a question, he’d have to find a pay phone and insert a quarter to talk for three minutes. That’s not the world we live in today and that’s not the school we would design today.

What are some of the factors pushing cost up beyond the effect of inflation? Here are a few that come immediately to mind.
  1. Initial cost is higher in schools striving to be green or to meet LEED standards. Money is saved in the long run, and the environment is better off, making it worthwhile, but there is an extra initial cost, perhaps two to three percent.
  2. Reducing class size for better educational outcomes is a cost factor, particularly in elementary schools. Build a school for 500 students at 25 per class and you need 20 classrooms. Reduce class size to an average of 20 and you need 25 classrooms. Unfortunately, the current trend is to increase class size to save operating costs, but in planning new space, most districts tend to reflect the educational value of smaller classes.
  3. By the same token, specialized spaces are increasing, including those for students with disabilities. Science rooms in elementary and middle schools, and offices for specialists, add cost. Many schools gain support by providing community space. ADA compliance raised some costs. Providing athletic and training facilities for girls and boys has also increased costs and size, particularly of secondary schools. 
  4. Modern trends in school design add cost. Double-loaded corridors are less expensive than schools with pods or other formations that provide a variety of spaces for groups of students. Schools within a school, to break large schools into smaller ones, need more space, but result in better educational opportunities. In an elementary school, providing a separate gymnasium and cafeteria is more expensive than providing a "multi-useless" room.
  5. A major factor is technology. There is no question that a great deal more technology and infrastructure for future technology is being planned into new schools. Would you build a new school today that could not support existing and future technology?

Can you build a new school today for the cost of a 1987 school plus inflation? Yes, you can but it’s not likely to support a 21st century education. School districts could save money on initial costs by being "penny-wise and pound foolish." Judging by this analysis, they have avoided that temptation. Good!

What Would It Cost to Build a 1987 School Today, and Why Would You?
 Grade Level
 1987 cost per student
 Inflation effect*
 Cost to build a 1987 school in 2010
Actual cost in 2010
 Difference to meet 21st century needs
Elementary  $6,849  192%  $13,147  $25,500  $12,353
Middle School
 $8,456  192%  $16,231  $29,959  $13,728
 High School
 $10,333  192%  $19,834  $30,833  $10,99
To read this table: In 1987, it cost $6, 849 per student to construct a new elementary school. The effects of inflation (in 2010, it cost $191.95 to purchase something that cost $100 in 1987) meant that to duplicate that school in 2010, one would have to pay $13,147 per student. The actual median cost per student for a new elementary school in 2010 was $25,500 -- $12,353 more. What did that additional money purchase? A school designed for the 21st century, including energy-saving and environmentally friendly features, additional support and activity facilities, technology (much of which did not exist in 1987) throughout the building, space for smaller classes and flexible space (rather than double-loaded corridors) to create opportunities to enhance the educational program for groups and individuals.

*based on Consumer Price Index

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facility consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEFPI's 2008 "Planner of the Year." He can be reached at