The Real Impact of Aging Higher Education Facilities

This post is the first in a 5-part series that addresses deferred maintenance on higher education campuses and the evolving role facilities managers play in the future of facilities in North America.

Many higher education campuses in the US and Canada have buildings and systems that are well overdue for a major renovation. Unfortunately, these institutions are not investing the necessary capital for the upkeep of these aging facilities. The result is a substantial increase in deferred maintenance — or the postponing of maintenance to save costs or meet budget funding levels.

Higher education campuses are fairly familiar with the convolutions of capital planning. But facilities management and renewal compete for funding resources that have not fully rebounded from the economic downturn of 2007–09. Facilities managers are faced with the added challenge of making the case  for a piece of this limited funding. And that’s no easy feat.

The first step is to understand the true cost of deferred maintenance in order to properly address and communicate it to financial stakeholders.

The Three F’s and the Competition for Available Resources

The three largest expenditures for colleges and universities are financial aid, faculty compensation and facilities. Financial aid is a ubiquitous expenditure borne by all educational institutions, as is the cost of retaining quality faculty. Both financial aid and faculty salaries account for a large percentage of a campus budget.

While equally important, the third “F” — facilities — is often left grossly underfunded.

Faculty compensation and financial aid are driving forces that affect enrollment, campus image and more. Unfortunately, it’s the overall lack of funding that has made it difficult for facilities managers to make valuable upgrades and schedule preventive maintenance, thus furthering the issue of aging infrastructure.

Enrollment trends are also causing competition on campuses. Declining or stagnant numbers of high school graduates are affecting college and university enrollments in most parts of the continent. Campuses that have grown space faster than enrollment now have more space to maintain and fewer students to fill it.

Conversely, institutions in states like Texas and Utah face unprecedented numbers of new students, many of them first generation college attendees. These institutions require new capital funding to relieve overcrowding.

It’s easy to overlook the effect enrollment can have on the allocation of funds for managing campus facilities. To remain competitive, the college that serves 1,000 students will need to provide the same amenities to attract students and faculty as a university of more than 10,000 students. This adversely effects smaller institutions, which often have higher tuition discounting and a smaller alumni donor base.

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The Problem of Deferred Maintenance

The inability to upgrade or regularly service HVAC, roofing or electrical equipment, for example, increases the likelihood that problems will get worse with time. Just about every campus across North America is suffering from a backlog of deferred maintenance, with some being far worse off than others.

The real problem of the maintenance backlog is that deferred costs actually lead to higher costs. That is because less preventive maintenance results in a shorter lifespan for facilities’ systems and more emergency repairs, which are more costly than the planned repair.

While today’s facilities managers face a growing number of challenges  in solving the issue of deferred maintenance, communication and useful metrics will play key roles in mitigating the problem.

Much of the initial legwork will come in the form of prioritizing projects to create momentum and forward movement. Facilities managers must take the lead on clearly presenting the problem and effectively communicating it to board members, trustees and decision makers.

The Importance of Remaining Vigilant

Out of economic necessity, campus facility managers have had to defer maintenance  on many buildings and building systems. While the year-over-year backlog of renovations and fixes has grown, the available capital has not. But you can only postpone the inevitable for so long.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however, when it comes to our aging campuses. In fact, there are proven ways to effectively address the issue. In the next post of this series, we’ll explore the complexities of the facilities manager role and what steps these individuals can take to chip away at deferred maintenance backlog.

How Sightlines Can Help:

Sightlines leverages independent analysis and rigorous benchmarking to bridge the gap between physical and financial asset strategy for educational institutions throughout North America.

 Our ROPA+ process helps higher education institutions to make more informed policy and strategic decisions based on consistent and accurate empirical evidence that is analyzed and refreshed annually.

Contact us to see how we can help you address your aging campus.

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