Budget Priorities in Tight Times: Who Will Take Care of Infrastructure?

naspa divisions groups public policy division

Jeanna Mastrodicasa, Associate Vice President for Operations, University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences

June 18, 2018

When the media learned about a large-scale enhancement to the student experience in the form of a lazy river, it became yet another example of misplaced priorities of the elite university in the view of the public.  Headlines like this get blamed for reasons why states are spending less on higher education, for fear the dollars will be wasted.

Of course, the dollars that are used for student priorities are often paid for by students, and are controlled by the students or the divisions of student affairs, and can only be used for enhancing student facilities (not classrooms or laboratories)—but now we’ve lost the attention of anybody who doesn’t read beyond the headline. Student affairs professionals know all too well that there aren’t a lot of dollars for its facilities beyond sources such as student fees, and those are very limited. 

What isn’t making headlines is the state of need for the unexciting projects:  the roofs, the HVAC systems, the inaccessible buildings to those in wheelchairs, and the rest of the behind-the -scenes infrastructure issues for institutions of higher education.  Older buildings weren’t built to be ADA accessible, to have sprinkler systems, or central heating and air conditioning, so we renovate our buildings to provide modern upgrades when we have the resources.  In warmer states, we spend a lot of effort keeping our buildings cool in the heat; in colder states, we do the opposite to fend off the cold. 

Residence halls have a revenue stream from rent, but most of the facilities in student affairs do not have many revenue options.  Further, donors like to give money for buildings they can put their names on, shiny things that are exciting, and the funding for deferred maintenance projects is smaller than the need. 

In 2015, the Association of Public Land-Grant Universities (APLU) commissioned a study from Sightlines, finding a $8.4B need nationally for deferred maintenance.   They were hoping to see some federal support for higher education infrastructure for agricultural facilities as part of the 2018 Farm Bill or from the Trump infrastructure efforts.  Politico visited the University of Florida Citrus Research and Education Center in 2017 to get a more in depth look at some agricultural facilities at the 100-year-old site to report on the issue, but there isn’t much happening federally to support a solution.  At the state level, each state has a different approach to funding facilities and needs. States like California are putting together some analysis to discuss the issue state-wide.  In Florida, the traditional funding source has been a tax on telephone land lines.  As you can imagine, this is not a sustainable option.  You can read more specific to the University of Florida from a 2017 presentation I gave here

Industry standards tell us that 25 years is the generally accepted age when major facility components and systems reach the end of useful life and become extremely costly to maintain. APLU’s study showed that 29% of the asset value of existing campus buildings have deteriorated nationally because of the lack of funding for deferred maintenance.  Sightlines’ 2017 “State of Facilities in Higher Education” report states that life cycle maintenance needs already surpass available resources, and renewal needs for 10-25 year old buildings are coming due over the next decade. 

Reports such as the University of Maryland’s “Restore the Core” explain the need to restore the buildings in the heart of the university, attempting to communicate to various stakeholders in search of some elusive capital dollars.  For older campuses, figuring out how to make them more accessible for ADA compliance with limited funds is a challenge.  Should (can?) you tear down an old building and start over

Some institutions seek public-private partnerships (P3) as a solution; for example, the University of California-Merced is doing a $1.3B expansion leveraging those dollars to create Merced 2020Ohio State University sold its parking rights for $483M.  Looking at ways to manage energy costs, and being able to do something about them, might require partnering to create an energy savings contract or spend specifically on projects that would reduce utility demand in the future.

As campuses compete for enrollment, the state of facilities do make a difference in the student experience both inside and outside of the classroom.  Facilities also impact faculty recruiting and retention, because faculty want to work in a nice modern environment.  Figuring out how to address the significant backlog of deferred maintenance and infrastructure needs in the times of budget constraints is going to take some public policy champions to solve the problems. 

Photo of a classroom at the University of Florida taken & submitted by the author.

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