Funding remains a concern, but not always an impediment

Colleges and universities are adept at tapping a variety of sources—taxpayers, investors, donors, and, yes, students—to fund their growth ambitions.

June 06, 2017 |

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Campus construction and renovation projects often come with hefty price tags. A few years ago, Duke University spent nearly $80 million on a new dining hall. Two recent projects that SmithGroupJJR designed include the $50 million Mike Ilitch School of Business at Wayne State University, now under construction in downtown Detroit, and the $82 million, 188,000-sf University of Wisconsin–LaCrosse Instructional Science Facility, a combination of allied health and STEM that will open next year.

As colleges sign off on ever-more-extravagant physical plant to help in their recruitment efforts, tuition hikes are putting college beyond the financial reach of the high school students they are trying to attract.

But colleges and universities are adept at tapping a variety of sources—taxpayers, investors, donors, and, yes, students—to fund their growth ambitions.

Bonds are one time-tested route. The University of New Mexico’s five-building construction program is being paid for primarily with bonds. Last year, North Carolina completed a $2 billion issue of Connect Bonds, $1.33 billion of which are earmarked for the 17 colleges in its UNC system.

Other colleges are asking their student bodies to approve annual user fees that would defray the cost of planned construction and renovation before the work gets started. 

 

The University of New Mexico’s five-building construction program is being financed by a combination of bonds, student fees, school funds, and private donations. Courtesy University of New Mexico.

 

State governments are also willing to finance college construction, albeit on a limited basis. Supplemental funding by the Massachusetts State Legislature helped pay for the $52 million, 87,500-sf Design Building at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, which had its official ribbon cutting in April. This is the first cross-laminated timber academic building in the U.S.

Greggrey Cohen, Simpson, Gumpertz & Heger’s National Practice Leader for structural repair and rehabilitation, who worked on the UMass Design Building, says that in recent years there has been a “big push” among colleges and universities in the Bay State to replace older buildings.

“The underlying strategy of our capital plan is to target investment in the areas of the highest impact, while balancing these investments across deferred maintenance, modernization, and new construction,” says Shane Conklin, UMass’s Associate Vice Chancellor for Facilities and Campus Services. Construction projects scheduled to open in the next two years include the relocation of a physical sciences building that will be integrated with a new 95,000-sf research building for chemistry and physics.

This isn’t to say that colleges and universities have unlimited access to capital. And their “reno-first” inclinations are a sign of their budgetary constraints.

“Everyone is still money conscious,” says Robert Quigley, of Architectural Resources Cambridge. His firm went through numerous meetings with Bentley University’s board before its Jennison Hall renovation budget got approved. “They are also conscious of the mistakes they made in the past being cheap,” he says. “They want to do a quality job.”

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