Pathways to Fiscal Stability in Higher Education

Wagner University, Foundation Hall

Parents want their children to find their passion in college. Students should debate philosophy at 3 AM, compare ancient wars to current conflicts, and recite iambic pentameter too loudly in public.

They should also seize the resources of the Career Services office. Unfortunately, for many college seniors a career path has become the road not taken.

To help students find work after graduation, several colleges have embarked on innovative private sector collaborations. Beyond jobs and experience, these partnerships make use of vacant facilities, raise capital, and chart a sustainable course in an uncertain future. As architects, we can help colleges build a framework for fiscal stability.

Get a Job                                                      

Pre-professional degree programs have skyrocketed since the 2008 recession, with internships and research experiences filling every engineering student’s summer break. Often with remuneration at or slightly above minimum wage, these summer jobs put a dent in ever-higher college costs.

To stay afloat, schools have been forced to ratchet up tuition while providing grants that halve the price of an education to keep students enrolled. New fitness centers, new libraries with coffee shops and new residence halls have been built to attract applicants.  Some forward-thinking schools have right-sized fees, executing “tuition resets” to attract applicants. Declining birth rates also hit schools hard. When enrollment plummets, the halls of ivy come tumbling down.”

Manage Debt

Not at the actual Ivies, of course, whose brand remains ironclad. Nor at the top 200 colleges and universities across the US whose anthropology degree programs are an acceptable precursor to law school.

But hundreds of mid- and small-size colleges of 10,000 students or less are navigating declining profits and diminishing enrollment. While the figures may be more nuanced, Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen shockingly predicts that half of all universities will close or merge in the next decade, and economist Nathan Grawe estimates that there will be 24% fewer college applicants by 2029. It is undeniable, however, that the oscillations of enrollment hit smaller schools much harder.

Prioritize Resources

Shippensburg University- H. Ric Luhrs Performing Arts Center

These institutions are faced with the following choices:

  • Re-invent and focus mission and investment on core strengths and new curricula
  • Soldier on with a leaner model of the status quo
  • Merge, acquire, or be acquired
  • Face extinction

The real estate and built environment is the least fluid component of an institution’s assets and will often serve as a physical and financial impediment to the changes that need to happen.

Several schools, however, have developed a strategy for managing real estate and attaining fiscal stability that bears reviewing. The strategy requires a hard look at what kind of learning is going to happen on campus in the long term and how buildings can best be optimized.

Engage Strategically

At Cheyney University in Chester County, Pennsylvania, declining enrollment and insurmountable debt may well be in the past.

Under the leadership of University President Aaron Walton, in 2018 the University developed a plan to monetize campus assets by renting the football stadium, gymnasium and auditorium for events. More significantly, Cheyney entered into long-term lease agreements with several local companies, retrofitting unused campus buildings.

In savvy public-private partnerships, the University collects the rent and the companies — Jefferson Health, Epcot Crenshaw among others — guarantee paid internships and employment opportunities for students.

Epcot Crenshaw occupies the McKnight Rogers building on campus. It plans to develop the area surrounding the facility into the Crenshaw Institute for Applied Sciences, building new administrative offices and analytical services laboratories for finding solutions to environmental problems.

Jefferson Health plans to launch the Institute for the Contemporary African American Experience and will engage Cheyney students in researching community health needs and participate in Jefferson’s health design lab. A key element in the agreement is allowing Cheyney undergraduates to pursue professional degrees at Jefferson in the health sciences.

Penn State University, Rec Hall

Focus on the Students

Toward that end, Cheyney has established a robust academic program of pre-medicine and pre-nursing courses. Assisted by Presidential Partners founder and our long-time colleague Richard Guarasci, president emeritus of Wagner College, Cheyney has laid a firm foundation for the collaborations by refocusing the curriculum.

Health sciences is a shrewd career-informed program because the need for nurses, doctors, physician’s assistants, technicians and other health professionals is bottomless at this moment in time.

Programs that connect motivated students with jobs in growing fields do more than keep a University’s doors open. They produce engaged, contributing citizens with promising ideas and fresh perspectives.

By: Barry N. Eiswerth, RA, NA
Senior Architect, Education Design Director
L.R. Kimball