State of US Universities Maintenance Backlogs

It doesn’t seem like much; an occasional drip, some peeling paint or a crack in a walkway. But, for US colleges and universities, these unattended maintenance issues add up and can impact an institution as a potential liability, by creating more damage and repair issues, and negatively impacting student recruitment and retention.

No longer the secret of higher education facilities managers; an overwhelming number of higher education institutions across the US face a facilities backlog with an unprecedented need to renew or renovate aging buildings.

The vicious cycle of disrepair started during the 2008 recession when funds for facilities were cut back and have only modestly grown since, yet still not reaching the levels priors to the recession. In addition, operating budgets have not kept pace with inflation or new campus growth, resulting in staffing levels that have not expanded adequately to cover any newly constructed spaces.

Adding to the budget dilemma is stagnant, and in some areas declining, enrollment. Reacting to the pressure to attract new students, many institutions have turned to new construction of flashy, high-tech housing, dining and recreational spaces. This new construction often pulls funding from facilities budgets, thus increasing the growing maintenance backlog. Now, facilities managers not only have to manage older buildings as they keep up with new buildings, the need to deal with the challenges of increased pressure to reduce operating costs amid diminishing resources.

How challenging is dealing with the backlog? At one point, the University of Minnesota was so far behind in maintenance and their ventilation equipment was so old that they resorted to purchasing replacement parts on eBay. Across the country, a 2016 report found the University of Washington had a billion dollar backlog in deferred maintenance and systems would last longer if the university spent more on day-to-day maintenance. Stories like this are all too common.

In fact, according to 2016 State of Facilities in Higher Education, produced by Sightlines, the backlog in facilities maintenance at North American colleges and universities has climbed to their highest point and has grown from an average of $82 per GSF in 2007 to over $100 per GSF in 2015, and that rate shows no signs of slowing down.

Once just the secret of higher education facilities managers, in the last couple of years more attention has been placed on the issue of facilities backlog and that existing buildings at universities and colleges are in dire need of attention.

What’s clear is this vicious cycle needs to be acknowledged, addressed and broken. Realistic strategies, besides traditional funding that is often diverted for new construction or raising tuition, for addressing the maintenance issue exist and other institutions can follow.

For example,  Massachusetts is focusing on repairing old higher education buildings before constructing new ones. The State’s top education official has put the priority on repairing old problems before tackling new projects.

Other schools have reached out to donors for help. While it’s easier to get donors for flashy, new state-of-the-art buildings, more campuses have made progress getting donors to help improve buildings. Some schools have had success by reaching back to donors to get consent to use the funds once marked for new construction to repair existing facilities. While, Washington & Lee, a private university in Virginia, raised funds to help restore its historic buildings through a campaign that renamed rooms inside for major donors.

In addition to funding, facilities managers will start to look at technology to increase productivity and streamline processes. By using facilities document management software teams will have centralized information to ensure everyone has access to the most current building documents, including as-builts, shut-offs, warranties, manuals, etc. Having a central repository for all building information will improve efficiency by keeping teams up to date on issues, repairs and renovations.

The state of maintenance at higher education facilities is far from being under control, but it is being acknowledged and with resources being refocused, addressed. As facilities managers learn to do more with less, including adopting technology solutions, officials will continue to look for creative financial solutions to update higher education facilities for future students.