deferred maintenance

Facilities Backlogs on College Campuses Eclipse $100 per Square Foot for First Time

Facilities backlogs on the campuses of North American colleges and universities climbed to their highest point ever last year, according to a new report released today by Sightlines, a Gordian company and leader in facilities intelligence and analysis for higher education institutions.

Deferred maintenance continues to impact public and private institutions at different levels. The 2016 “State of Facilities in Higher Education” report found that in 2015, public campuses had an average backlog of $108 per GSF, while backlogs on private campuses averaged $88 per GSF, a reflection of facilities maintenance and modernization investments by private institutions of roughly $0.50 per GSF more than public institutions.

“Given the well-documented fiscal challenges that colleges and universities have been facing in the years following the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, it’s inevitable that resources have been scarce for campus facilities,” said Mark Schiff, president of Sightlines. “Fortunately, campus leaders are learning how to manage the risk. They have enacted integrated strategies to respond to daily challenges, and are using limited capital and staff resources more strategically.”

The study includes data from 377 higher education institutions in the U.S. and Canada, with a collective enrollment of 3 million students and 1.5 billion total square feet of campus space. Approximately 41 percent of the institutions in the study were private and 59 percent were public.

According to analysis from the company’s team of researchers, there are three key conditions affecting the current state of higher education facilities:

  1. Enrollment

Overall, college and university enrollments are either stagnant or declining, leaving many campuses with more space to maintain and fewer students to fill it. The Sightlines report found enrollment at comprehensive universities has only increased by 1 percent since 2012, while cumulative growth in space is up nearly 14 percent. The problem is especially acute at small institutions, which have seen a decline of 3 percent in enrollment from 2012 in spite of a 4 percent increase in facilities development.

  1. Facility Age and Use

Sightlines’ analysts concluded the majority of buildings on most campuses were constructed before 1975 and have passed key thresholds for renewal. Unfortunately, many campuses have postponed capital investment to renew these older buildings in favor of new construction, forcing facilities managers into a reactive mode to address mechanical systems failures and responding to daily emergencies. The report also documented an interesting trend with respect to space planning and building usage: in the last 100 years, more non-academic space (e.g., dining and recreation facilities) have been constructed than academic space. In 1915, 70 percent of available space was built specifically for academic purposes; in 2015, that same figure was roughly 50 percent.

  1. Capital Investment

Although institutional operating budgets and other sources of facilities funding have increased, the Sightlines report concluded they are not keeping pace with either inflation or the growth of campus square footage. Data on capital investments for existing space shows average spending rebounded to $5.05 per GSF last year, after dropping to $4.58 per GSF in 2014, but remains below the 2009 average ($5.16 per GSF) in spite of inflation and additional space to maintain.

“Given these headwinds, it may seem surprising that we don’t hear about more building failures and serious facilities problems on campuses,” said Schiff. “But the primary reason for this is that campus facilities and finance leaders have learned how to manage the risk of building failure and avoid serious facility problems. We found that successful higher ed executives rely on the use of objective data and analytics to steer their resource allocation decisions, then implement policies and procedures in four major areas – which we spell out in our report – in order to achieve the best possible outcomes.”

Building upon the findings from the prior “State of Facilities in Higher Education” reports, the 2016 report analyzes new trends in higher education space management, provides insight into the challenges impacting campus facilities, and shares best practices for how college leaders can fund and manage their facilities in light of these challenges. The full report can be downloaded at: