Lazy Rivers and Learning

Rather than investing in expensive building projects that can create financial and public-relations risks, writes Loren Rullman, institutions should focus on the educational case for facility development.

January 17, 2018
iStock/Frank Ramspott

Articles in recent years about higher education spending on luxurious campus facilities can leave readers with the impression that students are only attracted to lavish campus frills -- and that colleges and universities are merely motivated by the pressure of an amenities arms race. Perhaps that is true of some institutions and students, and the fact is that certain colleges and universities that construct lazy rivers or tanning beds may be unnecessarily spending resources and, in so doing, damaging an otherwise educationally sound rationale for facility development. As the cost of attendance rises, levels of public funding slow or decline, and private institutions question the longevity of tuition-discounting models, institutions that invest too much in expensive building projects may be putting themselves at risk when it comes to not only public perception but also their bottom lines. Recently, a growing number of colleges and universities are becoming aware of that possibility and moving away from trophy buildings and other seemingly excessive amenities.

All that said, however, there are many good reasons -- other than student consumerism or competitive pressure -- that colleges and universities should invest in their facilities. I have been making this educational case for facility development throughout my 30-year career.

Higher education leaders know from years of research that what students learn -- about themselves, about others, about the world around them -- is significantly influenced by those with whom they interact and occurs largely outside the classroom. Just as initiatives in our most livable towns and cities often include spaces and experiences designed to incubate unplanned serendipity -- such as parks, libraries, civic spaces and festivals -- students, too, need places for such engagement if they are to bridge misunderstanding and build more cohesive communities. The disintegration of civil relationships on our campuses points to the need for connection. Only through connection can people learn to constructively disagree.

The programs and experiences within campus facilities give students an opportunity to practice these relationships and roles in preparation for a postcollege life in which our businesses, communities and neighborhoods need highly skilled leadership and participation. Developing a more sophisticated capacity to live, lead and contribute is not solely a cognitive exercise. Going to a football game is very different than watching it on television, and experiencing new music, food, people, languages, music and ideas is very different than simply reading about them.

Some campus facilities are intentionally developed to expose students to people and ideas that are different from those they might have previously known. Residence halls, for example, match roommates with different backgrounds or majors wherein students learn about accepting difference, managing through conflict and literally living together in harmony. And student centers offer spaces for students to learn about organizing people and managing meetings, as well as civic spaces for programs that are overtly or subtly educational. Recreation facilities, dining centers, cultural spaces and the like give students opportunities to practice, make mistakes, form opinions, explore values and learn, lead and follow. These facilities are worthy of investment because student learning is worthy of investment.

What’s more, many of the nation’s campus buildings were constructed during a period of historically high enrollment decades ago and are now in significant need of repair. Some estimates place higher education’s collective deferred maintenance backlog in excess of $30 billion. As in our own homes, building systems fail, materials become worn and ways of use become outdated. The cost of replacing facilities almost always outweighs the cost of renovating them, although sometimes these buildings reach the end of their useful life and simply must be replaced. Regardless, campus buildings -- classrooms, recreation centers, libraries, plazas, laboratories, counseling offices -- matter for the total educational experience, and to neglect their need or their purpose means neglecting the people who use them.

Even so, campus construction costs are too often unexplainably high, institutional leaders too often plan within administrative silos and student life administrators too often lack a narrative to counter unfortunate rankings that describe “luxury dorms” or “amazing recreation centers.” Although it is fun for students and administrators to learn that a campus facility is purported to be among the best, these misleading lists lack any form of methodology or inquiry about the campus itself, perpetuate a mythology of higher education being wasteful, and ignore the educational purpose and intentional learning designed into such facilities.

New Approaches Required

To improve value for students and their families, remedy the public relations challenge, and aid public understanding, colleges and universities must:

  • Insist on educational and institutional outcomes for facility development. For example, can student persistence and retention be somehow correlated with the creation of a new student success and advising center? Can student self-efficacy or appreciation for difference be measured as a consequence of a student center renovation?
  • Bring down the cost of campus construction. The cost of campus construction almost always exceeds the cost of construction in the private market. While there may be reasonable rationale (e.g., additional federal and state regulatory obligations), that reality drives up student costs, strains endowment earnings and astounds the public. We must find new ways to build less expensively, for shorter lifespans and/or with private-market relationships.
  • Be open to private-market practices in operations. Some colleges and universities have successfully lowered costs and improved service by looking to peers and private markets for examples of operating benchmarks in information technology, auxiliary services, conferencing management, procurement processes and the like. Although not always appropriate for all campuses or situations, we might lower operating and building costs and improve revenues and returns through operational self-examination.
  • Eliminate planning silos. Higher education is organized into offices, departments, schools, colleges, divisions and other structural units for effectively managing the institutional enterprise. Too often, however, we plan only within those structural silos and miss opportunities for cross-functional synergy, efficiency, knowledge and shared focus on student learning and experience. We should acknowledge that including students, faculty and other colleagues in facility planning discussions can result in more support, better buildings and powerful outcomes for students.
  • Push back on “luxury” narratives and related rankings. Higher education should develop its own measure of quality for student facilities, similar to institutional comparisons that have arisen as a counter to the U.S. News & World Report rankings, such as the Voluntary System of Accountability created by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities; the University and College Accountability Network developed by the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities; and the National Survey of Student Engagement based at Indiana University and funded by Pew Charitable Trusts. Moreover, we should assertively counter more populist rankings with information about the experiential intent of these buildings.

Recreation centers, student center buildings, residential buildings, dining halls, student success offices and similar facilities provide space, programs, experiences and challenges that contribute to the sum of a student’s education. They do not replace what is in the classroom, and they should not be the primary reason a student selects a college. Most important, they must be responsibly developed to serve the institution’s mission. Yet they are vitally important for educational reasons and not merely competitive ones. We shouldn’t oversimplify these reasons and throw the baby out with the bathwater -- or the learning out with the lazy river.


Loren Rullman spent 30 years as an administrator at five universities and is now a higher education consultant and strategy advisor for Workshop, a planning, consulting and design firm with offices in Milwaukee and Ann Arbor, Mich.


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