Higher Ed building spree continues even as students flee campus


“Because we don’t have enough offices, we’ll be putting you in temporary trailers…”

–Admin announcement. It sounds reasonable enough, until you realize the school has less faculty than ever, despite having more students than ever…the offices were all being taken over by the new administrative hires. When I resigned from the place years later, they started moving us to abandoned student dorms so decrepit that the stairs were unsafe. Despite faculty having no place to go, the school opened at least 5 administrative palaces over the course of 4 years.

Every year or so I talk about a part of higher ed that very few know about, even people that work on campus every day: the insane real estate buying and building spree. Students have no means of knowing about it—all they care about is being able to get to classes, so as long as construction doesn’t shut down access roads for too long, it never makes their radar. Similarly, faculty usually have no idea, because we have no input or control over such things.

The buying is really remarkable; New York University gives a good example of how these places snap up mansions and spend ridiculous amounts of money on renovating administrative palaces (and such knowledge is only known because researchers decided to specifically look). Thing is, NYU is not exceptional, as I’ve seen other schools also spend mind-boggling sums on real estate, often explicitly paying more than market price–almost certain in exchange for personal kickbacks to admin making the buying decision, though that’s just a guess on my part. I’ll leave it to the gentle reader to conjecture why absolutely nobody in any position to do anything about it can even guess why else our grotesquely overpaid administrative caste are incapable of making decent real estate deals.

Now, it takes years to make all the bribes plans necessary to get something built, so I totally understand how a school can be opening buildings even as the student base is dropping. Trouble is, across the country the total number of college students is dropping, and this trend has been for five years now—more than long enough for even highly incompetent administrators to go “gee, maybe we should stop building up the campus.”

Now, we pay our “leaders” in higher ed a great deal of money so they aren’t that incompetent right? We’ve stopped the madcap building spree, right? Not a chance:

Why Colleges Are Borrowing Billions

Higher-education institutions are overspending on renovations and new facilities that they hope will boost enrollment,

It’s so bizarre to watch this madness continue unabated, but I can see what’s happening here. Our higher education system is massively overbuilt, we easily have enough capacity now to slam the entire population of the country into college or university. So, here’s the reasoning:

Because our institutions are so overbuilt, their only hope for survival is growth.

This growth, absolutely necessary growth, can only come from one way: cannibalizing students away from other schools in the system.

The only way to attract students at this point is to offer the newest, most luxurious accommodations. Dorms which are already 5 years old are ancient by today’s standards, and need to be knocked down to put up something more chic. Bigger climbing walls, longer lazy rivers…whatever it takes.

It’s so infuriating that our leaders in higher ed have squandered the huge money pouring in from the student loan scam. Imagine if they’d invested it wisely, instead of ploughing it all into insultingly huge salaries, golden parachutes, and sparkling palaces.

Because our leaders failed to build prudently, because they overbuilt, their only chance is to continue to overbuild. How bad is it?

Colleges and universities collectively owe $240 billion, the Moody’s bond-rating service reports. That debt rose 18 percent, to $145 billion, in the last five years at public universities, Moody’s says.

Last year alone, colleges and universities borrowed a record $41.3 billion through municipal bonds, their principal source of debt funding, the financial information firm Thomson Reuters reports. That’s up from $28.7 billion a decade ago.

Consider how staggering this is. These schools were overbuilt five years ago, and after five years of falling enrollments, the schools are now borrowing more than ever, to build more than ever. Our universities have great tax advantages, but, like everything else, our leaders squandered those advantages, especially at the public institutions:

Just the interest payments come to the equivalent of $750 per student per year at public universities, the Berkeley researchers found, and $1,289 at private colleges.

A real business would probably be paying twice as much interest. I’m amazed just the interest is more, on a per student basis, than tuition was a few decades ago. Such huge mismanagement, it saddens me that the idea of clawing back the money from the scammers who stole it just isn’t on the table…and again I’ll leave it to the reader to consider why that’s the case.

Even with all the flags flying saying there’s a major problem here, expenditures on building just go up and up and up:

Colleges and universities collectively spent $8.4 billion on new construction and renovations from January through August of this year, up nearly 10 percent over the same period the year before, according to Dodge Data & Analytics,

The article I’m quoting from highlights a particular school, one which has lost over half their student base in the last five years:

But student numbers didn’t rebound. Instead, they continued to contract, from a peak of 8,339 in 2010 to 4,081 last fall…

For laughs, consider the kind of money spent to attract more students:

Among other things, it spent $54 million to buy Honolulu’s iconic Aloha Tower and convert it into an anchor for its downtown campus by adding dorm rooms, community spaces, a fitness center, and venues for concerts and lectures.

Do the math here: for the sake of 4,000 students, the university spent $54 million on just that one tower project. That’s $13,500 per student. The “leaders” could have literally bought a car for every student threatening to leave. I suspect that would have been far more effective than buying out a tower and making a bunch of renovations. Heck, they could have used that money to cover the education costs of every student—actual costs of education represent about 5% of whatever the tuition is.

And, instead, they bought some more real estate and built it up, paying extravagantly to do so. These guys have control over far too much money considering their extraordinary incompetence.

Now, I’m not brilliant, but I thought of the “buy everyone a car” and “give everyone free tuition” ideas all on my own, and I trust the gentle reader will concede both of these ideas would have been vastly more effective than the demonstrably failed ideas our horribly overpaid leaders at this school can come up with.

In the face of such gross mismanagement of funds, I again find myself wondering: why is nobody in a position to do anything about it willing to stop our “leaders” in higher ed from wasting ever greater amounts of money?