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The Future of Capital Construction Projects on Higher Education Campuses


Businesses across almost every sector have been impacted over the past 14 months, but arguably one of the most affected has been the higher education sector. On campuses across the country students, faculty and staff felt the effects of cancelled sports seasons, graduations, and largely, in-person teaching. The United States’ higher education system saw a new paradigm unfold, which brought with it reductions in campus enrollments, decreased revenue and widespread financial instability⁠— resulting in a pause on many construction projects. But now, as student enrollment rises in anticipation of a new mix of in-person and online learning, capital improvement projects on college campuses are poised for a comeback.

While the initial economic toll of the pandemic painted a bleak picture, we are beginning to see signs of positive growth. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the United States GDP experienced a 4.6% recovery in 2021 and unemployment is down to 6.0% from a shocking 14.7% in April of 2020. Construction spending, an important economic driver, has remained steady, showing a slight improvement from December 2019 to December 2020. And while architectural billings experienced a massive drop early in the pandemic, they currently sit surprisingly in nearly the same spot as they did pre-pandemic.

College campuses are also recovering from the impacts of the pandemic. Many students are set to return to campus for the Fall 2021 semester. With them, we are beginning to see an increase in capital projects. In fact, construction spending has already increased 7% for the higher education sector over the past year. A few factors have contributed to this: The Coronavirus Aid Relief, and the Economic Security (CARES) Act provided $22.7B for the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund and favorable project bond finance rates helped to support the rally to bring construction back to the college campus.

This all amounts to a much brighter outlook for higher education capital projects. However, many questions still linger about the impact of COVID-19 on building and design norms. Looking forward, we expect a newer de-densified classroom model with fresh inspiration for architectural design centered around cleanliness and personal safety. There will be opportunities to reconsider student housing and what campus life will look like for students across the country. We can also expect changes to inter-campus transit, study areas and campus retail and dining.

While the rebound for each university will look different, it is exciting to consider the future of capital construction projects on higher education campuses. With the combination of federal and state aid, plus the promise of full-time in-person campus enrollment⁠— there is finally some light at the end of the tunnel.

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