The days of bond-funded campus buildings and two-dimensional architectural drawings are drawing to a close at many public universities. The money, for now, is available through public-private partnerships, and plans are made in three dimensions, making for an easier sell to top decision makers.
Campus construction, particularly residence halls, starts with projections meant to keep a college or university years—sometimes decades—ahead of student demand. Those projections, once passed along the campus’s chain of command, tell the mathematical story: We’ll need more dorms, or we won’t.
That’s how it started at the University of Akron (UA), a 220-acre campus with 29,000 students.
In 1999, with only 1,000 beds on campus, the university’s housing officials projected that the school soon would need several times the student capacity, as thousands of students were living in nearby neighborhoods, condos, and apartments. It had been two decades since UA completed its last residence hall. Demand for on-campus housing, officials said, was about to crest.
Since then, the university has spent $626 million on 21 campus buildings, including three residence halls, creating 2,400 new beds for incoming students. UA’s goal is to have 5,000 beds available by 2020.
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Here’s the story behind UA’s latest residence hall, called South Hall, including how it was funded, designed, built, and filled—and how creative financing and cutting-edge technology helped the school come in under budget.
Funding in a rough economy
After projections are finalized and campus officials decide on the number of beds needed and the approximate cost of construction, funding must be secured.
Until the economic collapse of 2008, UA funded construction projects through bond initiatives that had to be approved by voters. Public schools and universities have long relied on these low-interest bonds, but as Ted Curtis, the university’s vice president for capital planning and facilities management, found out, the era of publicly funded construction might have come to a close.
Instead of pursuing the money through bonds, UA funded South Hall—scheduled to open for the fall semester—through a public-private partnership, an increasingly common strategy in higher education as state funding stagnates in a sluggish economic recovery.
Using private funding, however, changed the dynamics of UA’s newest residence hall. The university provided the land to build on, agreed to manage it upon completion, and will make lease payments thereafter. The private financiers dole out the cash to build the hall. Therefore, they own it.