4 tips for improved capital planning in higher ed

Focused facilities stewardship and capital planning are more important than ever across the higher ed landscape.

Higher education is undergoing a prolonged and excruciating facilities crisis. After generations of growth and expansion, campuses are struggling to care for their spaces properly.

Pete Zuraw

Gordian’s annual State of Facilities in Higher Education Report documented a 19% decline in higher ed facilities investments last year, as major capital projects were slowed or halted. The data indicates that the facilities investment shortfall to anticipated demands on college campuses is now approaching 40% below what is needed. As such, facilities that are recognized as assets may become liabilities very soon.

The lesson is that focused facilities stewardship and capital planning are more important than ever across the higher ed landscape. Gordian recommends that schools evolve their capital planning processes in four ways to confront the current reality.

Tip #1: Question the Status Quo

The first way we can improve our approach to planning is to embrace those changes and question the status quo. Not a challenge to simply alter the way forward, this is a call to rethink the assumptions upon which strategic and master plans have been built in the past. Question the history of sustained expansion. Ask if you’re using the appropriate models for teaching/learning spaces and if you have the right tools to optimize those spaces. Dare to reimagine campus parking. Take nothing for granted. In our current moment, accepting the established assumptions is the real risk.

Tip #2: Engage Stakeholders

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is the power of engaging all stakeholders. Facilities organizations found themselves thrust into leadership roles as campuses were evacuated in spring 2020, carrying significant responsibilities for making campuses safe for learning once again.  The most successful efforts knit the entire community together to create a shared understanding of changes needed to address new, pandemic-induced ways of living and learning. Continued stakeholder engagement will create pathways for campus change and produce consistently successful outcomes.

Tip #3: Fill Data Gaps

Talk of the importance of filling your data gaps is everywhere.  Knowledge developed from data-guided campuses through the pandemic and continues to drive the best decision-making for how to operate campuses and re-establish successful educational routines.  It is that data that gives us the ability to see the impending enrollment cliff or understand the impending challenge from multiple generations of building lifecycle needs stacking up over the next decade.

Times of distress are not the time to walk away from data gathering and analysis but the time to double down on its use.  Taking the time and committing the resources to collecting and analyzing the data pays robust dividends in making the right decisions with shrinking resources.

Related: 5 ways to build DEI in campus real estate and facilities management

Tip #4: Embrace Progress Over Perfection

Finally, the last several years have been a case study in embracing progress over perfection.   In the spring of 2020, a nationwide experiment was initiated overnight to implement online teaching and learning techniques because it was imperative.

Two years of iterations have helped schools understand how to be productive in a crisis and identified the preferred methods for their community going forward. Not every planning effort must be as chaotic as the rapid implementation of remote learning brought on by the pandemic. But campuses would do well to embrace the notion that imperfect progress on identified imperatives can be good progress that releases opportunities and creative energy with untold potential.

The pace of a slow-developing imperative can lull campus leaders into lethargy. But slow imperatives are still imperatives, even without the urgency of a runaway pandemic. Leveraging a structure that has teams questioning the status quo, opening the conversation to all stakeholders, focusing on data gaps and embracing progress over perfection will move organizations forward.

The pandemic may be waning but this is no time to rest. In the future, many institutions will find it necessary to take quick, decisive action. Those who currently enjoy a strong market position will do so to avoid an expensive and painful planning process to maintain their current status. More vulnerable institutions will do so as a matter of survival.

Pete Zuraw serves as the Vice President of Market Strategy and Development for Gordian. Pete leads his team to improve customer understanding and strengthen the connection between Gordian’s service offerings and the needs of its members. He also focuses on efforts to reinforce the company’s position as the voice of record for facilities issues in institutional marketplaces. In previous roles, Pete gained facilities management and planning experience through guiding organizations serving higher education institutions, state agencies and faith communities over 27 years. Pete earned a Bachelor of Science in civil engineering and a Bachelor of Arts in architecture, both from Lehigh University.

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Pete Zuraw
Pete Zuraw
Pete Zuraw is vice president of market strategy and development for Gordian.

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