Acing Econ 101

Universities and colleges are feeling the effects of the economy from all directions. Moody’s Investors Services predicts endowments will fall an average of 30 percent in the first half of 2009. Enrollment applications, accompanied by financial aid requests, are up as students and returning students bolster resumes. Alumni donations are leaner, perhaps fewer. And on campuses nationwide, capital projects are stopped. 

Institutions have been relatively sheltered from dramatic swings in the market due to long-term conservative and strategic investments. However, the state of the construction industry and overall economy is grave enough to shelve many campus projects indefinitely. Still colleges must continue to move forward to meet campus needs and goals and remain competitive. As a result, when news broke that federal and state governments are reviewing stimulus packages that may designate money to higher education construction, institutions began queuing up to be in the right position at the right time. 

In previous stimulus packages, the final contents, distribution and impact are nebulous. Who gets what and how much are too often buried in lobbyist handshakes and pounds of paperwork–though the new Administration may change this. Regardless, colleges and universities may be in a better position than they think. 

What distinguishes higher ed institutions from other sectors is their commitment to strategic planning, ongoing stewardship of capital building and infrastructure programs, and decades, perhaps centuries, of survival skills in times of economic uncertainty. Universities and colleges are long accustomed to working with architects, planners, facility managers and campus officials to develop detailed master plans and strategies to meet their campus mission and objectives. They know what steps are needed to meet their long-term and short-term goals, how their campus population and needs will evolve, and what their capital priorities are. 

Institutions are responsible and realistic. They have invested in developing, redeveloping, revisiting and updating their plans. When the unexpected happens, they do their best to take it all in stride. During economic downturns, they don’t shutter buildings and send students home. They cut back on spending. Instead of breaking ground, they focus on feasibility and project initiation studies. Single-phase construction projects become multiple phases. Urgent needs come first; secondary needs step back. 

While the terms of potential economic recovery plans remain to be defined, the institutions’ level of readiness will be of tremendous benefit. Yes, they may need to emphasize projects in the pipeline that are high performance and sustainable, rebuild community and provide jobs. But with a clear plan, they can demonstrate legitimacy in their funding requests and detail how they will spend the money, which will only further support their requests. As a result, when the time comes, institutions invested in strategic campus planning and capital projects will have little heavy lifting remaining to prove they’re ready to head on the road to recovery.