Insight Blog

U.S. Higher Education Construction Shows No Signs of Slowing Down

by Sami Barry
Aerial view of Cornell University arts quad

Whether you work directly for a higher education institution or you’re involved in the sector from an architecture, engineering, construction, or real estate perspective, it’s likely you’re aware of the construction activity on U.S. college and university campuses. Not only are there a multitude of projects going on, but the costs of some of the capital construction programs are astounding. And, there's no end in sight. Competition is strong in higher education, and institutions need to keep pace by building new facilities and modernizing/updating old ones for aesthetic and operational purposes and to continue attracting students.  

According to ARC, a technology and document solutions company for facilities management, competition and changes in enrollment are challenging colleges and universities of all sizes. The firm says a survey commissioned by the Association of University Directors of Estates reported that 67% of respondents (students) viewed facilities as critical to making their college decision, while only 47% said reputation was important. What do they pay the most attention to? - Recreation centers, dining halls, career services, and other similar facilities.

While building new and improved campus facilities can instill excitement on a campus, there are many challenges that come along with major capital construction programs that students and their families, and sometimes even faculty, don’t realize. As executive search consultants who specialize in representing higher education institutions in conducting searches for facilities, planning, and construction professionals, we know firsthand that the concerns over these programs are carried on the shoulders of administration, planning and design departments, and facilities management teams. A recent construction brief in College Planning & Management that outlined what keeps these professionals up at night resonated with us...

Top challenges of major capital construction programs on higher education campuses 

  • Aging workforce - Numerous retirements within design, construction, and facilities teams expected over the next several years. 
  • Allocating and building adaptable/flexible space.
  • Following rules and regulations for zoning and permitting.
  • Balancing reactionary vs. proactive approaches to diverse projects. 
  • Preparing space and facilities for future technology advancements.
  • Weighing the benefits of public-private partnerships versus conventional funding, and initiating the concept when appropriate.
  • Minimizing inconvenience and distractions, and maintaining operations through construction and renovations, while also making process efficient. Determining optimal times for projects to be completed. 
  • Mitigating potential negative impact of bureaucracy on delays and costs relating to vendor selection and procurement.
  • Addressing and adequately planning for deferred maintenance.
  • Finding construction materials that match those used in older buildings.

Despite these obstacles and challenges, colleges and universities continue to move forward with major campus improvements. And, the final products are beautiful facilities and environments that not only attract students and faculty, but impress everyone who steps foot on them.