In 2015, colleges and universities in the U.S. spent a record $11.5 billion on construction for 21 million square feet of new space. A Boston architect soberly calculated: “The space per student has in some cases tripled since the 1970s . . . Colleges have been prodigal.” Is the need for more space real, or are we experiencing an “academic building boom” as a result of what Alan Greenspan would call “irrational exuberance” on the part of too many giddy or inattentive college presidents, chancellors, trustees, and donors? As irrational exuberance led to the stock market bubble bursting in 2001, a disaster just as painful could be in store for our nation’s colleges and universities.
Let’s start with the matter of price. Over the expected lifetime of a building, an institution can expect to pay twice the initial cost of construction to maintain it. Even if construction is entirely donor funded, a new building may turn out to be the gift that keeps on taking, drawing on increasingly scarce operating funds that might otherwise support mundane but critical functions like teaching, instructional materials and student advising. And, of course, checking the upward spiral in the tuition that families and taxpayers fund may become a forgotten goal.