University buildings with trees
Image by Quinn Kampschroer from Pixabay

Martin Center column diagnoses universities’ edifice complex

Richard Vedder writes for the Martin Center about universities’ attachment to expensive construction projects.

According to one recent estimate, American colleges in the last few years, in a period of extraordinary enrollment decline, have added 70 million square feet of new instruction and research facilities on their campuses. That is more space than in 10 Pentagons, the largest office facility in the U.S.

Yet enrollments for fall 2020 had declined by about 2 million students compared to 9 years ago. Enrollments have been falling while campus buildings are growing.

American higher education has been suffering from a huge and expensive Edifice Complex.

To pick one university, the University of Akron in the 1990s had a main campus enrollment above 27,000. The then-long serving president, Luis Proenza, went on a spending binge, much with borrowed money, for new buildings. Yet in the last decade, enrollments have plunged at Akron: The Ohio Department of Higher Education reports fall 2020 enrollment of 14,553, down 36 percent from 2012.

The school is reeling from the costs of maintaining vast unneeded space, including massive debt repayment expenses. Now, the school is trying to sell 1 million of its 8 million square feet of space—the equivalent of a dozen large classroom buildings. Do you want to buy a very lightly used state-of-the-art football stadium in an area with a declining population? Akron could accommodate you.

Why did universities like Akron all over the country succumb to the Edifice Complex? Several factors are at work.

First and foremost, colleges vastly overstated their future need for space, assuming that enrollment increases would continue indefinitely. …

… Second, university presidents believed physical facilities were an important recruiting device.

High school students visiting campus would be awed by the neat buildings—dormitories with suites instead of old-style double or triple rooms, complete with private baths and kitchens with granite countertops. They would be enticed by classroom buildings with beautiful spacious atriums.

Mitch Kokai / Senior Political Analyst

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation. He joined JLF in December 2005 as director of communications. That followed more than four years as chie...