The Paradox of the 21st Century Campus

UT stepsMany worry that traditional higher education is over valued yet also believe that there is something of lasting worth in the shared experiences of campus life.   This is the paradox of the 21st century campus:  feeling the need for “campus” while technological and pedagogical realities are moving higher education away from the campus.

Lots of noise

As a new semester has begun, we’ve heard a cacophony of opinions about the future of American colleges and universities.  The prospects of getting credit for digital education have risen dramatically, and traditionalists have re-energized a rear guard action.  Mitch Daniels, the new leader of Purdue University, has acknowledged at least the possibility of “a shakeout in higher education,” and there is more evidence of doubts about the quality and affordability of higher education.  Combine these more thoughtful approaches with the growing political clamor for the “$10,000 degree” and you have an environment with a lot of noise.  Separating the signal (meaningful data) from the noise (everything else) has seldom been more difficult.

  • Classroom seat time is going down, for even the most traditional undergraduate degree.  The traditional setting for earning college credit is becoming less dominant.  Not long ago the classroom and its physical equivalents were essential to virtually all higher education experience.  Nearly 5% of all “classroom activities” has already moved to digital forms.
  • The difference between the price charged to undergraduates per credit hour and the cost of producing those credit hours is the only “profit” in the higher education system.  Undergraduate education subsidizes research, graduate education and much else within the modern university business model.
  • The traditional business model of higher education is increasingly fragile.  More of each degree’s credit hours are moving to alternative (and inexpensive) digital formats.  There are an increasing number of competitors, and innovative formats are proliferating.  At the same time, the price of credit hours that are dependent on bricks and mortar is constrained by the market and political dynamics.
  • The promise of public funding of higher education is dimming.  The long-term trend of declining federal and state support is clear.  These sources won’t go to zero, but meaningful increases will be few and far between.  News of increases in some state’s support, resulting from oil and gas booms is just part of the noise.  It is not a new signal.

Too much and yet not enough

Here are a few of the signals about bricks and mortar that are emerging from the noise of new projects and promotional accounts of “building this and needing that.”

  • Most institutions have more space than they can afford to operate and maintain.  Through multiple cycles of facilities expansion, many major institutions have nearly doubled the amount of space per student and per faculty member.  All the while they have accumulated deferred maintenance on a growing number of aging facilities.
  • Most institutions have either more space than they need or more capacity than they can utilize.  Either way, the situation is an unnecessary burden.  Efforts to increase utilization are underway as campuses seek to expand operations to three “semesters”.  However, at the rate of change now underway, it will take a couple of decades to make much difference.  That will not be fast enough.
  • Environmental and economic sustainability are inextricably linked to bricks and mortar and the supporting infrastructure.  The carbon footprints created by the inefficient use of more than 4.5 billion square feet of higher education buildings are an environmental cost that compromises every institution’s ability to be sustainable.
  • Most institutions do not have the right space to support the evolution of their programs.  Changes in use patterns, technologies and pedagogies require an increasing complement of classrooms that are bigger, faster and flatter, libraries adapted for service rather than book storage, and campuses supportive of interaction and collaboration.  As the need for the large lecture hall is shrinking, the demand for flexible learning space has already grown beyond the typical campus supply.
  • To keep the campus, the campus must be changed.  To retain the authenticity of the campus, its performance characteristics will be altered.  It has been done before over decades, but this time it must happen much more quickly.  Capital programs addressed to meet the needs of specific units do a poor job of addressing campus-wide inadequacies.

More than real estate

Faced with these challenges, colleges and universities are limited in their ability to respond.  Their identities are linked to a specific geography and history.  They cannot divest themselves of the place that gives them identity.  Yet they cannot afford to have more than they need and more than they can maintain.  They must stay as they are, and they must change their means and methods.  This is the paradox of the 21st century campus.

Colleges and universities usually don’t employ the real estate investment and divestment strategies that are employed by other businesses.  The traditional institution’s real estate strategy is “buy and hold.”  Yet by holding too many obsolete facilities and not enough of needed functional space, institutions are at a distinct disadvantage.  Generally, their facilities aren’t of much value to anyone other than themselves.  Selling campus real estate, even when possible, is rarely advantageous.

Changing the size and performance characteristics of an institution to respond to the ongoing economic, environmental and educational changes underway calls for “smart-sizing” the physical campus.  Some areas will grow.  Many will shrink.  Getting this right is not sufficient to address the systemic weaknesses of the traditional business model.  However, it is a necessary action, and will require more creative adaptation than merely buying what is needed and selling the rest.  As Terry Brown, has pointed out:  “…if in adapting we lose who we are, we have not survived.”

Over the next few weeks I will be outlining the essential elements of a facilities model for the paradox of the 21st century campus.  I will welcome your comments and critique.

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2 thoughts on “The Paradox of the 21st Century Campus

  1. I’m looking forward to learning more about your facilities model that addresses the paradox – well stated – of the 21st century campus. I’d like to see some data to support your claim that “undergraduate education subsidizes research, graduate education and much else within the modern university business model.”

  2. I agree that universities are facing paradoxes and if not well led and managed, they will become less useful serving the society.

    In some universities, the sharing knowledge among lecturers is rare; while society remains considering universities as center of knowledge management …

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