EDITORIALS

Too much space, not enough housing: Maine’s universities need to adapt to new age

Students study in a dorm room at the University of Maine, Orono in this April 2013 file photo. There has recently been a higher demand for on campus housing at the university.
Courtesy of the University of Maine
Students study in a dorm room at the University of Maine, Orono in this April 2013 file photo. There has recently been a higher demand for on campus housing at the university.
Posted March 03, 2014, at 2:37 p.m.

The University of Maine System has too much building space on its campuses for the number of students enrolled and taking in-person classes. At the same time, upperclassmen at the University of Maine are facing the prospect that there won’t be space for them in campus residence halls next year even if they want to live on campus.

Those seemingly paradoxical warnings point to the urgent need for a strategic facilities plan to guide the seven-campus university system.

The University of Maine System has an especially old stock of buildings that were built or last renovated more than 50 years ago, according to a facilities analysis completed for the university system by the firm Sightlines. And compared with public university system counterparts elsewhere in the United States, the University of Maine System’s facilities are more lightly used, cost more to operate and see less investment in planned maintenance.

Last year, 40 percent of University of Maine System facilities were at least 50 years old, compared with 28 percent five years earlier. At the University of Maine, 49 percent of buildings met the 50-year renovation age threshold.

While other state university systems reviewed by Sightlines saw, on average, more than 400 users — students, staff and faculty — for every 100,000 square feet of space, the University of Maine System saw fewer than 300 in 2013. The rate of use has declined 11 percent since 2006; it’s even lower when the analysis takes into account the growing amount of instruction provided online.

Meanwhile, Maine universities in 2013 spent $6.70 on operations for every square foot of space compared with $6.13 by their peers. Out of that cost, Maine universities spent only 20 cents on planned maintenance — which can reduce long-term operating and renovation costs — compared with the 31 cents spent by their counterparts.

Maine’s universities, with about 30,000 students, would need to shrink by 2.5 million square feet — of 9.4 million — or add nearly 6,400 new, full-time students in order to become only 75 percent as dense as their peers in other states.

There’s a growing realization at colleges and universities across the country that their campuses have grown too large — between 2006 and 2009, Maine’s universities spent more than half of their capital budgets on new, rather than existing, space — and ill-suited to the type of in-person instruction likely to dominate college-level education in the future.

If traditional classroom lectures are largely replaced by online learning, the learning that takes place on campus will be interactive, hands-on and technology-intensive. Classroom spaces will have to be set up accordingly.

The University of Maine System has to prepare for that type of future, especially given the likelihood that many of the university system’s new recruits in the coming years could come from the sizable segment of Maine’s adults who have completed some college credits but not completed a degree. Adult students need less space since they’re less likely to live on campus and more likely to enroll in courses online.

The Sightlines facilities analysis offers the university system the outlines of a strategy to pursue to make more efficient use of its spaces, lower operating costs and cut down the sizable cost of building maintenance that has been deferred. The firm identified about 300,000 square feet of building space — 73 buildings across the system — that is old, in poor shape and infrequently used.

A special facilities team is in the midst of conducting a strategic review of the campus’ facilities. By next year, the team is expected to identify which buildings Maine’s universities need long-term, which they don’t and how campuses can use their current buildings more efficiently.

While reviews are important, it will ultimately be necessary for the university system to act and adapt its physical size to its new reality. It will need to invest in facilities that support growing fields that are key to Maine’s economy, key to student attraction and key to the universities’ individual brands — and eliminate facilities that belong to yesterday.

 

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