Looking Ahead at Higher Ed Trends

This article is included in the Great Things: Issue 5 edition of the DPR Newsletter.

The learning landscape has shifted, and colleges and universities are embracing a brave new world as hybrid instruction continues and campuses return to regular operations. Their partners in the design, construction and planning arena have a role to play in defining and executing a winning combination of strategies to elevate the physical learning space and infrastructure to support an increasingly diverse student population.

DPR Construction spoke with Mike Moss, president for the Society for College and University Planning, which represents more than 600 schools and nearly 3,800 individuals, about some of the mega trends influencing institutions today. The following is a summary of two conversations between Moss and DPR’s higher education expert Tracy De Leuw.

Rendering of CSU Chico Science Building
At California State University Chico a new science building will house multiple departments for chemistry, physics, geological science, and science education. Courtesy of SmithGroup

What are some forces influencing the way institutions are planning projects?

Moss: There’s the declining birth rate in the United States that came out of the Great Recession of 2010 which corresponds to a decline in enrollment. There are fewer students coming out of American high schools, which will extend into the 2030s—and there was already going to be competition for students in higher education. The cost of tuition remains a dark cloud hanging over higher ed. Also, higher education is addressing issues of inequity. How can we best serve traditionally underserved populations, first-generation students, and lower-income students, and create inclusive and supportive learning environments?

The physical campus is also being re-imagined prompted by new approaches to teaching and learning and interdisciplinary education. It's no longer the biology building or the chemistry building; it's a science building used by multiple departments and multiple modalities. Having different disciplines work together strengthens the student learning environment; they see an issue or topic and solve problems from multiple perspectives.

Looking at the Spring 2022 semester and beyond, what’s at the top of everyone’s minds?

Moss: EDUCAUSE has published interesting work on three options that schools will be evaluating in that timeframe: 1) Do we restore the traditional classroom? 2) Are we going to evolve existing spaces to better suit hybrid learning and the preferences of our students and faculty? And, 3) Are we in need of complete transformation? All of these have a direct impact on physical space and how we repurpose, reuse, redesign or build new classrooms.

Additionally, most schools have declining finances on top of expenditures for health and safety. So as schools bring back auxiliary services, they’re starting to revive areas of the revenue stream that were lost during the pandemic. Most won’t return to full capacity. How will this influence forecasting for their spending allocation for building projects? And when? Is it in this immediate next cycle that they have available funds? Do they see some recovery, or perhaps they had mitigation plans that allow them to take a financial leap to support an evolving pedagogy? The academic plan is the central piece of this. This leads to the question—how can schools invest in providing students with the best learning environment?

Our colleagues in the construction industry can help schools navigate these tough questions as they strive to meet their institutional goals. These are long-term strategic decisions, but they all have a short-term impact. They can assist their higher ed partners by informing those trends and helping them optimize their resources. Perhaps, okay, it is a reconfiguration of space now, and a new ground-up build will come later.

Pivoting to the topic of climate change and sustainability on campus, this is another mega trend that has implications for enrollment. In a post-pandemic world, where do schools stand now on green commitments that they might’ve made previously?

Moss: Higher ed made some amazing sustainable development commitments for 2030, and institutions are still committed to the environment and a sustainable future. The year of disruption won't change people's memory of what schools promised to deliver when it comes to climate change. And this commitment is particularly important to the incoming generation of students.

And this is where, much like in housing, public-private partnerships will become more prevalent. It’s also worth looking at how communities can come together to meet climate pledges. I went to Indiana University, and I love that campus. Wouldn't it be great if they were net-zero? But can you imagine that being the case if Bloomington itself wasn't? It’s worth asking how the campus and the community can come together in these partnerships to become climate aware. Having the design and construction professional community in that conversation could provide a roadmap for what can happen, and it could be the tipping point that makes a difference.

Tracy, is the industry in a position where it can help lead that conversation, as Mike is suggesting?

De Leuw: Yes, we are. Beyond ground up projects and renovations there’s a case to be made for investing in infrastructure—efficient central plants, cogeneration facilities and electrification—and to show clients the return on investment. Upfront construction costs are only 30-35% of the total cost of a building, and maintenance is the other 65-70% of its life. So, then the conversation shifts to retrofitting spaces to extend their lifecycle and lower maintenance costs. There are different strategies at play that can be beefed up or improved.

If we look at the whole infrastructure, it's all systems thinking. When looking at a campus master plan, maybe the best decision really would be to scrap the deferred maintenance costs and everything else to retrofit building X. Or maybe, based on climate commitments, it’s better to remove the building, but don’t build anything new there because what’s needed is more green space and more water, and there are other types of things that can be done to offset carbon.

Moss: I love how you frame that. It's really a full system approach, that's what the industry brings to higher ed clients: that system overlay of the of the campus master plan that also extends into the realities of the community they serve. And as a third party, there’s an opportunity to bring in those perspectives and understanding from other communities that is valuable for everyone.

What else can contractors, designers, architects can do to support their clients in this sector?

Moss: There needs to be a deep understanding of these trends and how schools are responding so that the services provided align with their needs and their academic mission. Having a pulse on these factors and how it applies in various scales of time—from a micro, short-term level through decades on—is extremely valuable.

View of utility plant from street at night
A new utility plant at the College of William & Mary provides replacement capacity to stand-alone plants that had reached the end of their lifecycle. Courtesy of Lee Brauer