This commentary originally appeared in Real Clear Policy on November 26, 2014.
Texas, the country's second-largest state, will commence its next legislative session in January. Among the bills already introduced (during the "pre-filing" session), two seek slightly less than $3 billion in "Tuition Revenue Bonds" for new college-campus construction, which the universities would subsequently pay back through increasing student tuition.
On its face, such expansion seems natural for the Lone Star State, whose population is booming. Voting with their feet for the jobs created by Texas's relatively lower taxes and common-sense regulatory environment, many have been flocking to Texas (487 a day, net) recently. A bigger population means more college students, who would seem to require more college spaces — more classrooms, laboratories, dorms, and the like — to accommodate them. But is this necessarily the case?
To ensure that the tuition hikes that fund new buildings are fully warranted, two criteria should be met going forward. First, it must be shown that existing space is being used fully. Second, the state's growth in the college-age population must be weighed against the growth in the number of college students now taking some courses online. Online classes lessen the need for new brick-and-mortar classrooms.
As it considers its new campus construction proposals, Texas can learn from the example of the Pennsylvania State University System, which, after a building boom in the last decade, has been forced to cut costs. As a result, efficiency in allocating space has grown in importance. A recent report demonstrates that "facilities are second only to personnel in campus expenditures. … On a five-million-square-foot campus, one percent of underutilized lab and office space equals about $3.7-million in wasted construction costs." Moreover, "maintenance, utilities, and renewal costs can compose about 70 percent of the lifetime costs of a building." Accordingly, says the University of Michigan's Paul Courant, if universities "make better use of existing space, we can save substantial funds."
With such savings, universities would experience less pressure to increase tuition prices, which have been escalating at unsustainable rates. In Texas, between 2003 and 2009, statewide average academic charges for a student taking 15 semester credit hours at a public university increased 72 percent in constant dollars. Nationwide, according to one study, average tuitions have risen 440 percent — faster than general inflation and faster than health-care cost increases over the same period. To pay for tuition, students and their parents have taken on historic levels of debt. At $1.2 trillion, total student-loan debt is now, for the first time in history, greater than total national credit-card debt.
How much have campus construction projects contributed to this crisis? According to architectural planners Philip Parsons and Gregory Janks, college building has far exceeded the growth in the student population. After four decades of massive building, "the space per student has in some cases tripled since the 1970s," Parsons estimates. "Colleges have been prodigal." Janks agrees: "The mind-set that many institutions have had is that each institution needs to be complete unto itself, with one of every shiny toy that it can get, which means that there is often duplication of facilities on a regional basis. That leads to massive inefficiencies." Add to this the fact that, over the past few decades, class schedules "have narrowed to the middle of the day," leaving classroom space unused during the early morning and evening hours.
Like Penn State, New Jersey's Kean University discovered space inefficiencies. Merely 11 percent of its classrooms were being used on Friday afternoons, and only 8 percent on Saturdays. If it did not expand its class schedule, Kean would be forced to hike tuition by nearly 20 percent. Instead, under its new, expanded classroom schedule, classroom utilization on Fridays is now nearly 50 percent; Saturday classroom utilization now totals 16 percent. The result? Kean has been able to accept more than 700 additional students without any new construction and with a tuition hike under 5 percent.
Kean's efforts speak forcefully to Texas. Kean trumpets its space-economizing measures in keeping college affordable for its students, one-quarter of whom are either first-generation Americans or first-generation college students. Texas is also home to a large and growing number of students who fall into these categories.
Another successful space- and tuition-saving initiative comes from BYU-Idaho, which has adopted a year-round academic calendar divided into three semesters of 14 weeks apiece — each student is assigned to a "track" in which they take classes during two of these semesters. This move is anticipated to increase student enrollment by as much as 50 percent while increasing savings; under the old system, buildings sat half-empty in the summer while salaried personnel continued to work during these months with far fewer students. BYU-Idaho projects that through this measure the school can save 20 percent of these fixed costs per student while also raising teachers' salaries by 15 percent and giving faculty the month of August off.
As I have shown previously, online learning will further reduce the need for new buildings and thus college costs. Growing enrollment in online courses suggests that caution is called for before we declare the next new-classroom-building project shovel-ready. For over a decade, the Babson Group has tracked online learning nationwide. It finds that "the rate of growth in online enrollments is ten times that of the rate in all higher education." Over 6 million students enrolled in at least one online course during the fall 2010 term, an increase of 560,000 students over the previous year. With each additional online course taken, the need for space decreases.
Through incentivizing universities both to maximize their use of existing space and to offer additional courses online, the Texas legislature would go no small way toward ensuring a more affordable college education for Texas students and therewith smaller student-debt loads.
Thomas K. Lindsay directs the Center for Higher Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and is editor of SeeThruEdu.com. He was deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities under George W. Bush. He recently published Investigating American Democracy with Gary D. Glenn (Oxford University Press).