An End to Building the Campus to Nowhere?

Higher education in the United States has long been geared toward aggrandizement. It seems like every president or chancellor wants to leave his or her stamp on his or her campus with a new building.

Somewhat in that spirit, the University of North Carolina system underwent a massive expansion in the first decade of the 21st century, largely due to a $3.1 billion bond issue for new higher education buildings approved by voters in 2000. This was in a period of rapid enrollment growth as well.

Even though enrollment has stabilized, the system still has big plans for the future. Its 2015-17 budget priorities call for an aggressive expansion of its physical plant, a total of $7 billion in capital spending for new buildings and renovations between now and 2021. But the mood of the state—and of the nation—is very different today; the public is much less inclined to sign off on additional spending and debt, particularly when there are many indications that such expansion is not based on real needs.

Whether or not UNC gets that money depends on the legislature. And the legislature is split: while the budget proposal of the North Carolina House of Representatives gift-wraps startup money—either by appropriating planning and start-up funds or by authorizing debt—for roughly $674 million in new building projects this year, the state Senate has no new higher education capital projects in its 2015-16 budget. The two versions will be reconciled in a committee process before a joint budget is passed.

And it very much looks like the UNC system could get along quite well without new buildings. The factors that need to be looked at to determine future capital needs include demographic and enrollment trends, facilities usage, and policy.

Of these, facilities usage stands out as the best guide to whether we need to build new buildings to educate young state residents. For the system as a whole, usage of both traditional lecture-style classrooms and laboratories has dropped since 2009. Classroom usage—actually, it is based on the use of available seats, not the entire classrooms—fell from 18.80 hours per week in 2009 to 17.54 in 2013. Laboratory usage fell from 11.14 hours per week to 10.86 in the same time period.

Both of these statistics fall far short of the recommended levels of use. The recommended use for classroom seats in 22.75 hours a week and the recommended use for laboratory seats is 15 hours per week.

And it must be remembered that “recommended” means “optimal,” not a ceiling. Usage at the recommended level should not cause alarms, as they seem to be doing for UNC officials.

Furthermore, the recommended levels themselves seem quite low: three hours a day during the business week for laboratory seats, and roughly four-and-a-half for lecture seats. It is hard to imagine that such levels of usage indicate a need for more building.

Enrollment trends also must be considered. For the UNC system as a whole, enrollment has been exceedingly stable for the past few years: the total number of students, graduate and undergraduate, fell an insignificant 0.16 percent from 2009 to 2014, from 223,280 to 222,913.

North Carolina’s population is rising at a fast clip. It grew 22 percent from 2000 to 2013, and it is continuing to climb: the North Carolina Office of State Budget and Management projects that it will rise from 10,054,498 in 2015 to 10,469,351 to 2019, a healthy 4.1 percent increase.

But that does not necessarily mean that the UNC system will see much of that growth. After all, enrollment has already been stable during a period of population growth. One reason may be that the population is aging, with the average age expected to rise from 38.4 to 39 in just the four-year span from 2015 to 2019. Many of the new residents are retirees or older skilled workers.

Additionally, the white population is only growing at 3 percent in that period, as opposed to 6.7 percent for non-whites. White residents, on average, attend college at a higher rate than non-white residents do.

Furthermore, state policies have been promoting the idea that students should attend lower-cost community colleges for the first couple of years, thereby shrinking the number students enrolled at the state universities.

There are six major new building projects proposed in the House version of the budget:

  • At North Carolina State University, there are two projects funded in this year’s capital budget. One is for a plant sciences building, with $5 million appropriated to complete the planning phase. The building is estimated to eventually cost $180 million. The second is for a new engineering building, with $11.9 million appropriated this year for planning. NCSU will pick up half of the $154 million total cost, with the state authorized to issue $65.1 million in bonds to finance the remainder.
  • The House budget appropriates $9.2 million for a new science building at Western Carolina University, expected to cost $114.9 million.
  • The budget also authorizes the issuance of $90 million in bonds for a new science building at UNC-Charlotte.
  • It also authorizes $70.8 million for a new health sciences building at Appalachian State University.
  • The House budget provides $1.6 million for planning a new “Western” campus of the School of Science and Math in Morgantown, west of Hickory.

Looking at the each of the proposed capital projects in the House budget according its specific campus situation only slightly bolsters the UNC system’s claims that they need such expansion (the new campus for the UNC School of Science and Mathematics was left out since its original campus facilities usage statistics were unavailable):

  • Headcount enrollment at NCSU rose from 33,819 in 2009 to a high of 34,767 in 2011 and fell back to 34,009 in 2013. Its facility usage rate for lecture halls rose slightly from 2009 to 2013, from 87 percent of the recommended rate to 89 percent of recommended. However, its usage rate for laboratories fell quite significantly, from 82 percent of recommended to 73 percent. Given that both buildings are science-oriented, and that State has had an aggressive building campaign going on for a long time at its new Centennial campus, the need for further expansion is hardly clear.
  • Enrollment of on-campus students rose considerably at Western Carolina between 2009 and 2013, from 6,367 to 7,240 (a 13.7 percent increase). Classroom usage also rose, from 83 percent of recommended to 90 percent. So did laboratory use, but from an extremely low 61 percent of recommended to 75 percent. Both usage rates at Western are well below recommended levels, despite its aggressive growth policy. And it is the very low laboratory rate that is pertinent, since the new building is for science.
  • UNC Charlotte’s enrollment has grown steadily, from 24,701 in 2009 to 26,571 in 2013 (7.6 percent). Usage of classroom space fell slightly, from 98 percent of recommended to 95 percent. And its usage rates for laboratories hardly indicate a burning need for a new science building, falling from 84 percent in 2009 to 79 percent in 2013.
  • Appalachian State has the strongest case for adding a new building. Its headcount enrollment grew 6.8 percent from 2009 to 2013 and it has the highest usage rates in the system. Usage of facilities remained relatively stable, with classroom rates falling from 98 percent of recommended to 96 percent, while laboratory usage rose from 119 percent of recommended to 122 percent.

But just looking at individual campuses doesn’t tell the whole story. Laboratory space may be tight at Appalachian State, but down the Blue Ridge Parkway at UNC-Asheville, the laboratory usage rate was only 59 percent in 2013. At UNC-Chapel Hill, it was even lower, at 58 percent. And at both Winston-Salem State University and Elizabeth City State University, the usage rate of laboratory space stood at an abysmal 41 percent.

It makes little sense to continue building at some schools while at others classrooms sit idle. Fortunately, the state Senate is has shown great responsibility by ignoring the university system’s requests. Such prudence may signal a new era, in which the use of existing buildings is maximized and gaudy new amenities are left on the drawing board.

The purpose is, after all, learning. And that can be done anywhere. Even in a classroom where most of the seats are filled, for eight hours a day.