Students in Space

As a student at UNC-Chapel Hill, I often noticed that many classrooms were empty throughout the school day. In fact, I can’t really remember a point at which the school seemed full—there were always unused classrooms.

For a while I thought it must be me—am I just taking classes at weird times?

But UNC’s own data have confirmed my observation: during an average hour of the school day at UNC-Chapel Hill, less than two fifths of the school’s classrooms—only 37 percent in Fall 2011, the latest figures available—are being used. Even at times of peak classroom use, more than a quarter of usable classrooms sit empty.

Most universities, it turns out, leave large numbers of classrooms empty throughout much of the week. According to Tom Shaver, CEO of Ad Astra Information Systems, a higher education consulting group that specializes in facilities management, the industry average for the percentage of classrooms occupied throughout the school week (Monday through Friday, 8:00 am to 10:00 pm) is 49 percent.

That puts UNC-CH’s classroom use efficiency somewhat below average.

Shaver said that the best classroom use percentage he has ever heard of is 69 percent (though he didn’t specify which school).

The 17 schools in the UNC system had an average classroom occupancy of 44 percent in 2009, according to a 2010 study by the University of North Carolina. According to a different study by the UNC administration, its Facilities Inventory and Utilization Study 2011, North Carolina’s community colleges do even worse: the average classroom was used only 18.4 hours per week, or 26 percent of the standard school week. (Four private colleges in the state—Campbell, Mars Hill, Barton, and Pfeiffer—were also part of the study, and they averaged 23 percent classroom usage in 2011).

This apparent waste causes costs to be higher than necessary. The average American university spends $2,073 per student per year on building maintenance costs according to the American Physical Plant Association. The savings that could be realized from more efficient classroom use are substantial. Western Kentucky University, for instance, was able to save over $345,000 during the summer months alone by making some improvements in classroom use, including temporarily closing energy-inefficient buildings.

UNC-Chapel Hill, however, doesn’t seem to be improving with regard to space utilization. A few years ago, the university built Chapman Hall, which has high-tech classrooms and comfortable student lounges. But was it needed if the average classroom in Chapman is only used half of the time? If we used classroom space more efficiently, couldn’t we close roughly half the buildings on campus and save on upkeep and maintenance? (Before liberal blogger Chris Fitzsimon has a heart attack, I’m not actually suggesting we tear any buildings down).

UNC-CH Space Usage

In some ways, universities’ apparent poor use of space is the opposite of what we would expect. Unlike high schools, colleges can schedule classes throughout the day and evening, rather than just in the morning and early afternoon. Unlike restaurants, universities don’t have to contend with lunch or dinner rushes and lulls in between; they have control over when classes are available.

Some office property owners have difficulties finding tenants, but prestigious universities like UNC-Chapel Hill have no difficulty finding enough students willing to fill classes. Why then do colleges fail to use their space more efficiently?

The main reason is that it’s not a very high priority; convenience is held to be more important. Many classes are scheduled in the late morning and early afternoon, allowing professors and students alike to sleep late and go home early. At Appalachian State, for example (see chart below), 80 percent of classrooms were used during the 11:00 am hour, but only 31 percent were in use at 8:00 am, and the evening hours had much lower usage rates.

UNC System Room Occupancy by Hour

Other things cause poor use of classroom space, too. Carol Tresolini, chairwoman of the UNC Classroom Policy Steering Committee, told the Daily Tar Heel that budget cuts in recent years have made efficient classroom use more difficult. The cuts have led to more large classes, but few additional large classrooms have been built. “Some of the small classrooms aren’t being used because we don’t have as many small classes,” she said.

A number of schools have tried using market forces to improve space utilization through what’s called a “space charge” program. Basically, instead of paying for facility construction and maintenance from a central fund, each academic department receives an allocation of money to pay for the classroom space it uses. By charging departments more to use classrooms at peak use hours, colleges can discourage bottlenecking and produce a more even distribution of classes throughout the day.

Space charge programs can be found on campuses in Australia, New Zealand, and England, but the space charge idea has been slow to catch on in the United States.

In his book Tuition Rising, Ronald G. Ehrenberg, economist and former vice president at Cornell University, details his experience trying to get academic departments to pay for space. A number of administrators encouraged him to implement a space charge program but they weren’t willing to take the necessary steps, and he gave up after two years.

Ehrenberg blamed institutional inertia and administrators’ desire to hold on to power. “That they would [use the traditional system of allocating space] rather than let the price system work should not have been surprising to me,” wrote Ehrenberg. “Setting up a price mechanism to help allocate space would reduce the authority of these administrators.”

At the few American universities where space charge programs have been implemented, including Johns Hopkins, Michigan, and Stanford, the idea has had success. At Stanford, space utilization improved 4.5 percent overall and one department improved utilization by 15 percent (according to a May 2011 report by UCLA administrators exploring space-saving techniques).

The University of Michigan has had a space charge program for over a decade now. Frances Mueller, assistant vice provost at Michigan, told the Pope Center that the program has helped departments think more economically about their space. In Fall 2012, Michigan’s utilization rate was just over 60 percent for daytime hours (M-F, 8:00am to 5:00pm. For comparison, UNC-CH’s rate for the same time frame in Fall 2011 was 52 percent).

Another suggestion for improved space use on campus is changing the entire traditional two-semester-per-year system. By abandoning the old agrarian-era schedule with several months off in the summer, colleges could make better use of their buildings. In an article for the Pope Center earlier this year, Jane S. Shaw praised BYU-Idaho for making such a change, but noted that BYU-Idaho was just about the only school to do so.

Making better use of space isn’t very popular. It might force students or faculty to wake up early or stay late on campus, it might force administrators to give up the power that comes from assigning space, and it might even force students to give up their summer vacations.

When it comes to reducing space use costs, “nothing substitutes for deans and administrators with backbones,” Alan Fish, vice president for real-estate and campus services at Johns Hopkins, told the Chronicle of Higher Education. Colleges and universities have great potential to save money by improving their use of space—they just have to want to first.