The Deterioration of Our Nation's Colleges

The Great Recession is being blamed for increasing deferred maintenance. But is it the only cause of this challenge? What do administrators need to do to turn the situation around? What is going to happen if they don’t? Here, E. Lander Medlin, executive vice president of Alexandria, VA-based APPA, “Leadership in Educational Facilities,” shares her insights into the condition of our nation’s higher education facilities.

CPM: What do we know about the condition of our higher education facilities?
Medlin: A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education says that the total maintenance backlog per square foot at all institutions increased eight percent from 2007 to 2010, from $72.98 to $78.90. Deferred maintenance makes up 54 percent of that investment backlog. It also notes that some experts estimate that deferred maintenance amounts to about $36B, with $7B of that being urgent.

How would you describe the current 
facilities climate?
We have had specific moments in time where there has been significant capital construction: After the G.I. bill was enacted in 1944, after Sputnik I was launched in 1957, in the 1980s, and again in the latter part of the 1990s. These periods featured spurts in new construction, as opposed to renovation of existing facilities. This means that the average age of campus facilities is more than 42 years.

Now, imagine your home being more than 42 years old and your family experiencing periods when it goes into a hole economically, forcing maintenance, repair, and renovation to be put on hold. It puts the family in the condition of having a growing deferred renewal dollar requirement.

It’s the same for our colleges and universities. Very few have been able to muster the ability to do something major in their budgets to reduce deferred maintenance, so it has been growing. And the dollar amount for urgent repair has been growing, so that our facilities are not in compliance with growing local, federal, and state requirements.

Much of higher education has been funded from state funds (if you’re public) and endowments (if you’re private). Since the Great Recession hit in 2008, all of the big categories that affect negatively the long-term state of facilities have been affected. Now take the last 25 years and recognize that the percentage of state support has dropped dramatically. Because facilities are the largest administrative line item, of course that budget is going to be cut. So you reduce how often you clean something and you put off preventive maintenance.

All the indicators to me are that the situation is worse than ever before, and I don’t see an end in sight. I believe my colleagues would say the same thing. I don’t think we can blame anyone; there has simply been a lack of money and lack of state support. To keep things in perspective, if health care goes up, it’s first in line to be state supported. It has to be funded. Likewise, K–12 education and prisons have to be funded ahead of higher education. So it is sad when support for higher education is cut, but everyone is vying for a shrinking pot of money.

How can the situation be improved?
Space use is an institution-wide set of policies that needs to be addressed and can help with the overall cost of education. It requires officials to make some hard decisions. On the simpler side, because space drives facilities costs, we can save money by better utilizing the space we have. For example, we can save money by leasing space instead of owning it. Similarly, if we can use sustainability to reduce energy costs, we can plow the savings back into the facilities.

On the more challenging side, an institution that may want 15 majors may have to limit itself to 10 so money can be allocated to facilities. This is the kind of policy administrators have to think about. Otherwise, there’s a point at which buildings won’t be reliable, and that’s scary. Right now, we are doing a great job of keeping facilities running but, when they go into crisis mode, things will be different.

In addition to reduced funding, what else has contributed to the increase in deferred maintenance?
Governmental rules and regulations have increased, including building codes, and that comes at a price. They’re unfunded mandates. Often, administrators can’t afford to modify older facilities because of the increased cost of meeting codes. Inflation is another factor: The cost of doing business has increased.
I believe the proliferation of space is a third factor. The building of new space without the recognition of the cost to maintain, operate, and renew it through its life cycle is unconscionable to me. If I know that 27 percent to 30 percent of the total cost of a facility is design and construction, I am gifted the money from a donor. That’s nice, but where does the other 70 percent to 73 percent required for maintenance, operations, utilities, and recapitalization through the life of the building come from? There is a big disconnect there. Institutional policy needs to be driven by the total cost of facility ownership.

When was the last time a donor paid for a steam line replacement? It’s not sexy. Administrators have to have a policy that says, “When you give me X amount of dollars, I can use half for construction and endow the other half to care for the building through time.” That becomes a prioritization for the care of the facility.

How will administrators know when deferred maintenance has crossed the line from something commonly experienced to being a crisis?
You need to know two things: what your number is and how to manage around it. If you know your number, where it came from, and its percentage to the built environment and how you’re going to deal with it through time, there’s no need to panic. It must be looked at as an opportunity to create a plan for conscious deferred maintenance, which is what you’re going to defer based on highest priority needs and how they affect building systems.

For example, a laboratory facility must be kept running, as opposed to a classroom facility where some things can be left undone for a period of time. Also, because I want to make sure the structure of the facility is in good repair, I’m going to pay attention to issues such as roofing and HVAC which, if not in good repair, can have a detrimental effect on other parts of the building, before I consider replacing carpet or painting.

What is the federal government’s role in providing funds to keep campus facilities in good shape?

The government doesn’t have a role in providing for facilities. It is simply not their responsibility, as noted in two different examples. First, institutions that receive research money must use those funds directly for research and not for other essentials like facilities or support staff. Second, before the 2009 Stimulus Act package came out, there was debate about whether it would provide several billion dollars for higher education facilities. In the end, we received none of the $831B. It would be nice if they had provided funds, but using that money for highways and bridges is a great thing. Based on history, I doubt the government will ever provide higher education facility money, and we shouldn’t expect it. 

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