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Shuttered islands: Showing a college campus when buildings have closed

Colleges share advice on how higher ed officials can address the issue of having boarded-up buildings on campus
University Business, March 2017
If colleges choose to simply shutter older structures and let them sit unoccupied, it's important to remember that honesty is the best policy during campus tours, says David Hawkins, executive director for educational content and policy for the National Association for College Admission Counseling. (GettyImages.com: FozzyB)
If colleges choose to simply shutter older structures and let them sit unoccupied, it's important to remember that honesty is the best policy during campus tours, says David Hawkins, executive director for educational content and policy for the National Association for College Admission Counseling. (GettyImages.com: FozzyB)

The combination of the campus expansion boom of the past decade and the recent flattening of enrollment rates continues to create a significant backlog of deferred maintenance at many institutions, according to the 2016 “State of Facilities in Higher Education” report from Sightlines, an education facility assessment consultancy.

And that backlog is leading to some campus buildings being shut down rather than fixed.

Campuses have become less dense than in the past, with classroom utilization rates between 50 and 60 percent, the report also finds.

Explaining a building closure

Situation: Residence hall closed for budgetary purposes

Positive spin: “Housing space is being optimized.”

Situation: A department discontinued and its building shut down

Positive spin: “We’re focusing on what our college does best and bolstering the most popular programs.”

Despite a rise in new construction over the past few years, many institutions still have significant space that was constructed during the 1960s and ’70s, a period of rapid college growth marked by an abundance of poorly constructed buildings.

These increasingly obsolete structures now make up a large portion of deferred maintenance needs, putting administrators in a bind: Expend capital resources to maintain outdated, inefficient and half-empty buildings, or swallow the significant costs of demolition and removal?

Some colleges choose to simply shutter older structures and let them sit unoccupied. And although that course might provide a financial solution for the school, a boarded-up building in the middle of campus can be a challenge during tours.

When such a scenario does unfold on a campus, remember that honesty is the best policy, says David Hawkins, executive director for educational content and policy for the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Admissions officers should explain the situation proactively, and focus on the reasons why that building was shuttered.” Student and volunteer admissions tour guides should also be prepared to answer questions about shuttered buildings in the same manner.

“The last thing you want to do is to try to paint a picture—literally—of a big tree on a tarp and raise it in front of building,” says Hawkins. “Someone will know. It could be a parent who went to that college, and they’ll say, “Whatever happened to that place?’ So you want to be prepared—put your best foot forward and be honest.”

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