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Beyond Job Creation

A case for investing in America's 21st-century educational capacity and facilities
University Business, Apr 2009

TODAY’S JOBS MEAN NOTHING without tomorrow’s education. To be sure, stimulus dollars should be deployed to create jobs now. But that deployment also represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to invest in the expansion of our nation’s educational capacity and facilities.

On the one hand, Congress stuck to its historical pattern of short-sightedness in its passage of the recent stimulus spending bill by omitting from the final legislation $6 billion originally set aside to upgrade higher education facilities. Yet there is a silver lining, in the form of a large pool of money to be distributed to states, which still can choose to invest this money in higher education infrastructure. States should be encouraged to make this bold choice by funding programs that prepare students for the jobs of the future.

This emergency is too great an opportunity to squander on short-term investments.

The historic scope and costs of the current stimulus plan demand that the long-term benefits to productivity, capacity, and intellectual capital be measured over the time frame it will take to pay for the investments. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make structural investments in the human capital and academic infrastructure of our nation’s institutions of higher education. This emergency is too great an opportunity to squander on short-term investments that create little long-term value.

In my experience designing buildings for colleges and universities, I’ve identified three areas of higher education that can benefit from new government investment: (1) sustainable design to reflect an increasing need for better environmental stewardship, (2) infrastructure and facilities to support 21st-century pedagogy, and (3) investment in financial aid to develop our nation’s greatest natural resource: human capital.

Sustainable design initiatives are the most obvious place where capital investment today will yield measurable cost savings and long-term operational efficiencies. Investing in energy-efficient fixtures and equipment will pay immediate dividends in savings from reduced energy and water use. Though there has been significant investment in higher education over the past 20 years, the investment has not been evenly distributed across the entire landscape of campus facilities.

Many colleges and universities now boast state-of-the-art laboratories or residence hall facilities—but are drawing steam or chilled water from central plants that date back to the 1950s or ’60s. New energy-efficient windows and boilers are vital contributions to the sustainable profile of a campus, but the generational upgrade of campuswide power and HVAC infrastructure must also be evaluated. This investment holds perhaps the greatest opportunity for structural changes that support a more sustainable future for campus environments.

We must enable access to education as the focal point of the economy we are fashioning today.

The demands of 21st-century pedagogy represent an area where many institutions have not made adequate investments and are currently following trends rather than leading them. One example of such a leading trend is a project we are completing for the College of DuPage (Ill.), one of the largest community colleges in the Midwest. The new Technology Education Center brings together programs across the college curriculum, from auto mechanics, welding, and refrigeration to integrated electrical engineering, architecture, and horticulture. All of these programs exist on campus today in spaces improvised for their use.

Organizationally or pedagogically, there is little apparent common purpose for how these disparate programs come together in one facility, but it became clear when we designed the project that many of the disciplines accommodated in the building in fact have collaborative professional overlaps. The building has become an opportunity to reinforce the collaborative nature of these disciplines, a teaching tool that stresses the integrated nature of 21st-century professional practice.

Colleges and universities all over the country should be making the same investments in new facilities, or the current economic crisis will be overshadowed by an incurable lack of skilled, intelligent workers decades from now.

The third area in which significant investment could pay dividends is in the expansion of funding for human capital. From financial aid to research and faculty development, the current administration’s ambition to once again lead the world in per capita rates of higher education by 2020 is perhaps the most far-reaching and potentially productive component of the current spending plan. The post-World War II expansion in access to higher education is one of the central reasons behind the broadly based expansion of the American economy in the last half-century. If we wish to return to those halcyon days of middle-class expansion, we must enable access to education as the focal point of the economy we are fashioning today.

As big thinkers and people of action have always known, crisis and opportunity go hand in hand. These are indeed challenging and exciting times to live through.

An old aphorism states that the learned are prepared to compete in a society that may be disappearing before their eyes, while learners are prepared to participate in the reinvention of society. The traditional iron gateways and ivy-covered walls of our most historic colleges and universities will not prepare us for shifting from a culture of the learned to one of learners. Government leaders and higher education decision makers must work together to ensure that our higher education facilities are sustainable, respond to changing pedagogy, and prepare today’s students for tomorrow’s jobs. This will take significant investment but, applied wisely, will pay dividends in American competitiveness for generations to come.

Avram Lothan, FAIA, LEED AP, is a principal with DeStefano+Partners (, an architecture, urban planning, and interior design firm based in Chicago. He has more than 25 years of experience designing buildings for students from kindergarten to graduate school and is a fellow with the American Institute of Architects.