'Interactive Learning Spaces' at the center of Ball State U.'s faculty development program

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Can active learning techniques and flexible classroom seating improve student outcomes? Research at Ball State University has produced mixed results.

Essay defends the idea that colleges have climbing walls and other recreational facilities

One of the most popular critiques of higher education is that climbing walls and recreation centers are the sources of all financial problems and destructive student-coddling behaviors. Armed with outrage and anecdote, sometimes spiced with snark but little real information or context, ostensibly well-intentioned commentators have made an industry out of bashing these facilities.

I confess that, when it came to recreation centers, I was once a card-carrying member of the arched-eyebrow club. In my former position as budget director and later vice chancellor for finance for the Ohio Board of Regents, I had limited authority over campus issuance of new debt for construction. “Tut, tut, tut,” I used to think. “How could the trustees and administrators be so extravagant as to spend money on these luxurious student facilities? Why aren't running, cycling and walking on outdoor paths good enough? Why can't students do calisthenics in their dorm rooms?” (The tuts are added for dramatic effect. I never actually thought these words.)

Fortunately for the campuses and students in public institutions in Ohio, my opinion had little effect on these decisions. In terms of process, the institutions were, like Caesar's wife, above suspicion. The administrations would generally seek and receive approval from students, either through an actual referendum or through student government. Students would usually approve the projects and, most importantly, the new fees associated with them.

At the University of Cincinnati, students approved the immediate imposition of new fees for a recreation center they would never use -- due to the construction schedule -- arguing that previous generations of students had supported existing, older facilities, and that the current cohort of students were in debt for these past sacrifices and investments. The staff of the Board of Regents would review the financial viability of the project, making sure that operations and debt could be financed with the plan submitted by the campus.

I was on a road in Athens -- Ohio, not Damascus -- when I got knocked off of my proverbial ass, discovered the value of these centers and changed my opinion 180 degrees. I visited the Ping Center at Ohio University on a Saturday night. What I discovered amazed me. I found the 168,000-square-foot recreation center filled with hundreds of students, faculty and staff, exercising, competing in recreational and intramural sports, socializing, doing homework in the juice bar, and generally having productive shared experiences in a safe, comfortable and challenging environment.

At a time when binge drinking and obesity are two of the most serious health issues faced by college students, and faculty-student interactions are few and far between, I was impressed with the level and type of unstructured, positive activity I witnessed among students and faculty that night. I assume that recreation centers at other institutions serve similar purposes. In addition, at urban campuses, these centers serve as a magnet on weekends and off hours that bring people, life and income to areas that otherwise would be dark and dead. In a small way, they help keep the city alive.

For someone who is still proud of his education in the liberal arts, it took me a long time to come to appreciate the words of the Roman poet Juvenal: “Mens sana in corpore sano.

You can look it up on your smartphone, while you're on your stationary bike, at your campus recreation center.

Richard Petrick is the retired vice chancellor for finance of the Ohio Board of Regents.

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Compilation of photographs of campuses with snow from Juno

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Photography from campuses as they experienced the blizzard.

Universities deal with extreme heat

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At colleges in regions unaccustomed to the extreme heat, students and employees try their best to stay cool.

Advice for making campuses welcoming to visitors (essay}


Does your campus leave the welcome mat out all year -- or just on red-letter days? Take a good look around, Maria Shine Stewart advises.

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Colleges can't wait for systemic reform, must make changes now (essay)

The world still comes to the United States for higher education. Our elite institutions are the best in the world. Historically, we have done a better job of providing quality education to tens of millions of people than almost any other country on earth.

Yet we’re slipping. Simply put, our graduation rates are too low, our costs are too high, and too many students are slipping through the cracks. Reformers -- and universities themselves -- grasp these realities and want wholesale changes that will fundamentally alter how we think about higher education.

Those long-term battles are important, even necessary. New innovations in distance learning and nontraditional degrees may provide new pathways for students. But such changes may take decades. In the meantime, we have millions of college students taking on ever-higher debt loads for a long, winding road to a degree.  We need to make immediate changes to affirmatively lower costs – not just “increase affordability” – while we raise graduation rates.  We need to work within the existing framework to do what we’re already doing, but do it better and cheaper.

The good news is we have proven methods to improve our efficiency and outcomes at our postsecondary institutions.

Take student costs. Conventional wisdom focuses on high tuition costs, but there’s a related problem that’s often overlooked. Graduating from college takes most students five or even six years, while they are planning for four. That ends up an extra 25 to 50 percent in tuition costs alone, not to mention college-related fees and the opportunity cost of not working.

Institutions can directly reduce time to degree. Recent data show that “bottleneck courses,” i.e., courses where student demand outstrips available seats, play a big role in delaying degree completion.

To put it in human terms, a student who needs Biology 201 to graduate – when a seat in Biology 201 isn’t available until next year – is wasting time and money.  That dynamic is why “access to courses” consistently ranks as the biggest student complaint about higher education, according to the Noel-Levitz annual student satisfaction survey (subscription required).

The fix is relatively straightforward: offer those bottleneck courses more often. Just 5 to 10 percent of courses are responsible for the vast majority of bottlenecks, so colleges and universities can address the shortages quickly. For instance, they can ensure that their most valuable resources -- professors -- are teaching the right mix of courses to prevent bottlenecks, rather than spending limited resources on course offerings that are not needed (15-20 percent of a typical school’s schedule). Similarly, colleges can better align schedules so students don’t have to choose between two required courses, and can make sure room size is aligned to corresponding course demand.

“Quickly” is the key concept in this fix – we can save students hundreds of millions of dollars every year starting immediately.  We don’t need to wait a decade, or even a year.

Addressing bottleneck courses is one of the clearest examples of changes we can make to address the problems in higher education immediately, but it is far from the only one.  The two below, for instance, lead to real savings right away, but are easy to overlook:

  • Extensive data show that better allocation of academic space – i.e., which courses are scheduled in which classrooms at which times – is an overlooked yet vital cost issue. Better allocation of classroom resources – identifying and addressing primetime bottlenecks by focusing on room ownership, meeting pattern efficiency and last-minute cancellation, etc. – can postpone or even cancel entire expensive classroom construction projects.  (Full disclosure: Ad Astra Information Systems, where Tom Shaver serves as CEO, are providing university leaders with data-based solutions that help them make these important resource allocation decisions.)
  • College bookstores can adopt software enabling students to take advantage of economies of scale and get their expensive textbooks for vastly reduced costs (One of us wrote an op-ed on this subject in The Hill).

There are, of course, hundreds of other solutions we can adopt right away. These solutions represent just a few ideas that directly address the nuts and bolts of providing courses to thousands of students on a single campus. These solutions aren’t glamorous. They’ll never make the front page of The New York Times or be the subject of a TED talk. 

Yet they are key operational concerns that save real money. One large community college in the Northeast better aligned its faculty and classroom resources to offer more of the most oversubscribed courses, allowing it to enroll hundreds more students without committing new funding.  All told, it improved its balance sheet by over $1.7 million in a single year. A community college system in the Midwest took a similar approach and has improved its fiscal outlook by almost $3 million in just three years. Multiply those figures by the approximately 3,000 institutions of higher education in this country, and you are looking at tremendous savings for students – and for institutions.

Will these changes singlehandedly fix the deep-seated and complicated fiscal issues afflicting our higher education system? Probably not. But can these solutions -- and others like them -- vastly improve the higher education experience for both students and institutions?  There is no question they can.

In an era defined by a $16 trillion federal debt and states across the country struggling with multibillion-dollar shortfalls, we are going to see an unfortunate but inevitable reduction in government funding for higher education.  Colleges are facing this reality today.  They cannot afford to wait for next-generation solutions. They need this-generation solutions. Millions of students’ futures depend on it.

Gene Hickok is the former deputy U.S. secretary of education and a senior adviser at Whiteboard Advisors; Tom Shaver is CEO of Ad Astra Information Systems, a company using data mining technology to help colleges and universities improve student access and lower costs.

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Images of New England colleges in wake of blizzard Nemo

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Images from New England colleges coping with the great blizzard of 2013.

Voters approve bond measures for college facilities

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Voters in New Jersey and in several community college districts approve measures.

Celebrating physical campuses and those who keep them up (essay)


With summer approaching, Maria Shine Stewart explores ways to cultivate kinder campus spaces all year long through the three “n’s”: noticing, navigating, nurturing.

Kentucky limits on debt issuance hinder university constructions

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Kentucky's restrictions on university debt, at a time when many public universities are turning to bonds in lieu of state funding for capital projects, further hinder construction at state institutions.


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