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Campuses are not just educational institutions but also workplaces. And as the migration to working from home brought on by the pandemic is unlikely to reverse entirely, this moment of transition presents opportunities for colleges and universities to reinvent their campuses for the future.

While some higher education institutions may find themselves with excess campus space, others have had a different problem: not enough affordable property. But today, those in normally tight real estate markets like New York and Boston and other cities across the United States are in the middle of a once-in-a-generation opportunity to expand their campuses. By leveraging both the shift to work from home and the buyers’ market in urban cores, they can position themselves for the next decade or more.

Even institutions that aren’t facing a chronic shortage of space can use this moment to align the use of prime campus real estate with their values and differentiators as they look to bring students back to the physical campus and compete for enrollments.

The transition to work from home over the past year has shown that many college functions could potentially continue to be remote -- or at least don’t need to occupy their current locations on campus. For instance, so-called rear-facing administrative operations that rarely come in direct contact with students, such as marketing and finance, may have team members who excelled while working from home and would prefer to continue to do so. Even if those teams work better together in an office, the pandemic could be an opportunity to relocate them from the heart of the campus to a commercial office space or even a converted home adjacent to campus.

Commercial Real Estate’s Loss Is Higher Ed’s Gain

For colleges and universities in competitive real estate markets, the expense of expanding can be insurmountable. But rates and values of commercial and residential properties in urban cores have decreased significantly. There’s unlikely to be a better opportunity to lease or buy properties near city campuses than in the near future.

This type of expansion is especially important for colleges and universities because, unlike some private companies, many institutions of higher education are tied in with their location. Harvard University or Boston University, for instance, will probably not open residential campuses in Wyoming or South Carolina. What’s more, an insurance company can simply inform its employees their positions are being moved to another state, and many of them will probably go along with it. But a college, however, has to recruit students and faculty members, and the campus’s location often plays a major role in that.

Indeed, in today’s competitive higher education environment, one way that colleges and universities can differentiate themselves is by giving prominent physical space on their campus to a school or program that reflects the direction that the institution is going -- or wants to go. That could be a section of the business school run by students and faculty and focused on entrepreneurship and innovation, for example, or an institute for racial justice.

These types of programs typically don’t need a great deal of space. In fact, they sometimes function without a dedicated space. But providing 5,000 square feet within a central building to such an initiative makes a statement about the pedagogical values of the college or university and enhances student engagement.

Even something as simple as a newly designed and visible career center on campus can help both with admissions and retention by reflecting the institution’s priorities in the design. Placing this new center in an off-campus site sends the wrong message, so moving offices off campus or to a less central campus location to make room for it can make a lot of sense.

Some campuses could go so far as to expand or create new academic programs where administrative offices once existed. Health and wellness programs are currently all the rage, but they weren’t all that common as recently as five years ago. Reorganizing campus offices in this unusual real estate climate can help colleges and universities be nimble and stay ahead of trends in student interests as they arise. Even simply adding housing or classrooms in prime campus locations currently occupied by offices can foster a sense of cohesion among the student body.

Design Opportunities at Off-Campus Sites

If administrative offices are moved off a campus, they can’t just feel like humdrum offices. The college or university should make a concerted effort to express its brand and culture in these new spaces. That goes beyond school colors or graphics. Since staff working at these new offices will no longer be surrounded by the campus environment on a daily basis, they need to experience the values of the institution when they come to work.

Being stationed off campus doesn’t need to feel like an exile. If the brand is strong, the brand can travel. Off-campus offices can be an opportunity for particularly daring designs -- tailored, engaging environments that may otherwise be challenging to create on a campus.

For example, an off-campus house that my team at Amenta Emma Architects and I converted to an office for Quinnipiac University’s brand strategy group includes a glass-and-wood conference room suspended in the middle of the space. The combination of this striking, contemporary interior and the home’s historic New England exterior reflects the institution’s blend of tradition and innovation.

A space like this can help immensely in recruiting top talent to work at an institution and emphasize key aspects of the university’s character. Everyone’s heard the expression “It’s a great college town.” That’s because true pride in a college or university can’t be contained by a property line.

The pandemic has been an extremely tough period financially for colleges and universities, many of which were already struggling prior to COVID-19. For those institutions without a significant budget for capital projects, a strategic repositioning of one or two elements in the central campus can be a cost-effective way to add energy to recruitment, alumni support and more without having to acquire or build a new structure. Doing so as the institution emerges from the upheaval of COVID-19 can avoid disruption to campus functions and provide a sense of renewal and moving forward.

Without tremendous investment, campuses can emerge from the pandemic better positioned and optimized for the future. A time when so many people are still working from home is a time to reorganize, rethink and renovate. There may not be another opportunity like this -- indeed, I hope there is not. But as many of you have told your students, you should always make the most out of your opportunities.

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