Planning for Obsolescence

As college becomes less affordable, alternatives to the traditional four-year model have been making inroads, leading some to question its lasting viability. If universities struggle, it will impact not only campuses, but cities, as well.

August 19, 2013, 11:55 AM PDT

By Mark Hough

When people talk about “town/gown” relationships, the discussion usually revolves around some Cold War-like feud going on between a university and the community in which it is located. While there are plenty of examples of this, the reality is that no matter how dysfunctional these relationships may be these schools and cities almost always need the other to survive. When the university succeeds, the community reaps the rewards along with it, and vice versa.

This symbiotic relationship was well documented in a recent New York Times article focused on Ithaca, NY, and how local Cornell University and Ithaca College have helped the town to thrive within a region that is otherwise suffering. This story – the big rich school helping out the relatively poor local community – has been told a thousand times. But this dynamic may now be changing in ways that planners in cities and on campuses need to be prepared to address.

For those of us who work in the higher education world, it is nearly impossible to escape the doomsday talk going around that questions the on-going viability of the traditional, four-year residential college model. The fear is rooted in economic concerns – the painfully slow recovery, ever-skyrocketing tuition costs and sluggish job market – that have collectively challenged the ways we plan our campuses.

In the 1990s and early 2000s – before the recession hit – universities were building like crazy. Campus development was equivalent to an arms race; with massive facilities being constructed in order to better compete for the best students and faculty in what was probably the most comprehensive building boom on campuses since the post WW-II era. At last month’s annual conference of the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP), plenary speaker (and former U.S. Secretary of Labor and current faculty member at UC Berkeley) Robert Reich addressed this as part of the reason why universities find themselves in a mess now. He told a packed house that the US News and World Report is partly to blame due to its annual “Best Colleges” list. Their use of criteria that skew toward non-academic, quality of life things like sports and campus ambiance that, although important, have changed priorities and forced schools to invest many millions to create a “country club” environment in order to get on the coveted list and attract more students. Inevitably, more and better amenities mean higher tuition that seems increasingly out of reach for many American families.

Once the recession hit, most schools put the brakes on major capital spending for facilities. Even Harvard was hit hard; a fact made clear when the school halted its multi-billion dollar expansion plans into Allston, the small community across the Charles River, in 2009.  The university has rebounded and recently submitted a new master plan for Allston to the Boston Redevelopment Authority, in hopes of getting approval to once again move forward with its plans.

As we all know, most schools are not Harvard; many of them are still hurting. According to the Wall Street Journal, some institutions are experiencing an unfamiliar decrease in enrollment. Worried faculty and administrators at these schools and others are doing all sorts of academic and financial planning to figure out how best to adapt to what may be a new reality. The issues, however, go way beyond endowments and pedagogy. If falling school populations become an ongoing trend rather than just a blip, or if, worse, colleges and universities are actually forced to close their doors, they won’t be the only ones in trouble – the cities that house them will face real problems as well.

What is adding to the dour mood these days is that, for the first time, schools are facing potentially real competition – from both for-profit institutions and online course options (Massive Open Online Courses, annoyingly referred to as “MOOCs”), which have been empowered by parents and students eager to find cheaper alternatives for education. Combined, these growing forces might eventually be able to syphon off students in real numbers; and fewer students at schools means fewer faculty and fewer employees as well. Universities could adjust to this – at least in the short run – by incentivizing all students to live on campus, re-purposing buildings, and focusing on renovation rather than new construction. The surrounding cities, on the other hand, could face a glut of housing stock, unfilled apartments around campuses, and emptier stores and restaurants.

How real is this problem? No one really knows yet. The for-profits, like the University of Phoenix, have spent a lot of money on advertising trying to convince people they provide a quality education on par with traditional colleges. And it seems to be working…sort of. The nonprofit The Education Trust reports that enrollment in for-profits grew 236 percent between 1998 and 2008. This momentum, however, has slowed more recently, stymied by the threat of more stringent federal oversight and the early strength of the MOOCs.

The dreaded MOOCs, which were developed at elite schools like Stanford and MIT to offer education to the masses for free, are now being experimented with as means of accruing legitimate credit, raising the possibility that one day a student could obtain a degree from a “real” university without ever stepping foot onto campus. This is the sort of news keeping deans and provosts up at night.

The skeptics could, of course, be wrong. There are certainly those who believe that the MOOCs may be merely a fad, and the venerable college model will remain as strong as ever; even if it gets dented a little. Even so, whether or not these threats are substantial enough to significantly change the paradigm of higher education in this country, we, as city planners and campus planners, need to consider that the status quo may no longer apply. Constant university growth may not be the given that we once considered it to be.

If four-year colleges falter, the impact would be felt not only by college towns like Ithaca, but also larger cities like Atlanta, Seattle, Boston and Philadelphia that have developed prosperous neighborhoods around campuses, and rely largely on university communities for their success.  

Mark Hough

Mark Hough has been the university landscape architect at Duke University since 2000. He is involved in all aspects of planning and design on the ever-evolving campus. Outside of Duke, he writes and lectures on topics such as cities, campuses, sustainability and cultural landscapes.

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