A recent column from Forbes argues that American colleges and universities are spending billions on new buildings that they don’t need.
Forbes education columnist Michael Poliakoff highlighted a concerning higher education trend in a column that was published recently. According to the data, American colleges and universities spent $11.5 billion in 2015 alone on new construction projects. And it’s not entirely clear that colleges need the extra space.
Take for example a recent $84.75 million build at Louisiana State University, which included a $1.5 million lazy river that is shaped to make out the university’s name. Did Louisiana State University truly need such an extravagant recreation center?
What is the ROI for an institution and for student outcomes when considering the construction of a new laboratory or classroom—which have plausible claims to the core academic mission of a college—let alone an $84.75 million recreation center including a $1.5 million lazy river with the initials of Louisiana State University, paid for with an increase in student fees, or a $55 million recreation facility just for Clemson football players? Despite the hefty price tag colleges pay to build and maintain facilities, many institutions are content with quite inefficient use of existing infrastructure. For example, the use of classroom seats and lab stations at public universities in South Carolina dropped from 53% of the total available in 2012 to 50% in 2015 and to 49% in 2016.
Poliakoff points out that universities are forced to pay the costs of maintaining new buildings, even when construction is funded entirely by private donors. According to some experts, the costs of maintaining a building are often twice as much of the original construction cost. This means that taxpayers will be forced to foot the bill for the maintenance of new construction projects at public universities.
Let’s start with the matter of price. Over the expected lifetime of a building, an institution can expect to pay twice the initial cost of construction to maintain it. Even if construction is entirely donor funded, a new building may turn out to be the gift that keeps on taking, drawing on increasingly scarce operating funds that might otherwise support mundane but critical functions like teaching, instructional materials and student advising. And, of course, checking the upward spiral in the tuition that families and taxpayers fund may become a forgotten goal.
With the rising cost of college and the mainstreaming of more affordable, online degree programs, these massive capital projects are questionable for both academia and the American taxpayer’s bottom line.
Breitbart News reported in September 2017 that enrollment at the University of Missouri was at an all-time low. After a series of high-profile “social justice” protests in 2015, the university was forced to shut down seven residential halls due to low enrollment.