Improving Strategy For Capital Allocation In Higher Education

For higher education facility leaders, aligning projects with institutional goals may help to boost funding for capital projects on campus.

By Pete Zuraw

Executives throughout higher education institutions are finding they must be more strategic in their decision-making if they want their institution to thrive in the long-term. Cultural, demographic, and even economic shifts are creating new demands for campus administrators, pushing decision-makers to carve out fresh strategies for meeting these changing demands. This is especially crucial for facility management leaders, who are being pushed to become more tactical in how they approach requests for funding if they want to drive needed campus improvements. Only by making strategic and fiscally responsible decisions can they position the institution to thrive over the long term.

higher education facilities

One of the challenges that many higher education facilities managers face is having productive conversations about facilities funding to administration and board members. These professionals are finding they are most effective when they can shift the focus of the conversation to investment solutions that tie to institutional strategy and strengthen mission.

When facilities professionals can communicate to administrators how each area of campus impacts the school’s overarching mission, prioritizing and selecting capital projects becomes easier. Those projects that will drive campus goals — whether its life safety projects or technology upgrades that make a life science building more competitive among its peers — are clear front runners for funding.

One tool that can help facilities managers and their business partners better strategize is a building portfolio. Through a portfolio framework, executives get clearer insight into how systems, buildings and areas of campuses are connected to the campus mission.

How a building portfolio can help. When it comes to requesting funding for maintenance and improvements, it’s important to be able to clearly prioritize projects. Facility needs often seem unending, so having a framework that matches capital allocation plans to an institution’s overall mission can make demands seem more manageable.

The building portfolio concept is much like a financial portfolio; it serves as a framework for understanding how to best invest certain resources. A portfolio framework can be used to segment buildings and areas across campus into specific groups. This process should clarify how each facility fits into the institutions overall goals. With this framework in place, facilities managers can determine which investment strategy best fits each portfolio.

A more strategic approach to communicating campus needs. This strategic framework approach to facility planning demands deep insight into how assets are performing, and how the diverse portfolio elements fit within the institutional goals.

It’s helpful to have a reliable assessment of campus conditions in hand when having these strategic conversations, even though your case shouldn’t come directly from the technical descriptions listed there. But it’s also important to understand the investment criteria to improve this portfolio strategy’s usefulness. In other words, you want to know the “why” behind your projects. It’s less effective to get funding to “repair holes made by IT upgrades through classroom firewalls” than it is to get funding for a project that is “for the protection of staff and students.” When facilities professionals communicate beyond the technical, they give administrative decision-makers insight into how maintenance and operations dollars are impacting the school’s mission.

Still, good data can support discussions as you bring together individuals from academics, residence life, the finance office and other key administrators to begin to understand the departmental goals driving the campus’ future. Discussions with this broad group of vested participants can prove extremely helpful in organizing a facilities portfolio. Then, with the broad picture in place, it becomes simpler to identify those areas most in need of investments, and how to spend most effectively to meet those demands.

The need for regular portfolio balancing. Of course, creating the framework isn’t enough. It’s important to also balance this portfolio to better prioritize facility investments. A balanced portfolio meets both programmatic and technical projects, and sees to the needs of academic departments, student life, and maintenance. Leaning further toward any one area can cause a school to lose institutional effectiveness.

However, life safety projects should be a high priority when it comes to selecting among projects to tackle. These liability issues can potentially lead to the types of problems that shut buildings down—a challenge to any institution’s finances and one that some smaller institutions may find they cannot overcome.

Following this leading priority, many institutions might identify maintaining or increasing enrollment levels as a driving goal. A building portfolio can be helpful in identifying spaces that support student and faculty recruitment and retention—technology centers, student housing or certain dedicated research spaces. In this way, a building portfolio sets a very clear pathway for ongoing improvement. The building portfolio can help business officers set goals across all different type of spaces and ultimately align capital investments with institutional priorities.

higher education facilitiesZuraw is vice president, market strategy and development with Sightlines, a Gordian company that provides higher education facilities with services in facilities benchmarking and analysis, capital planning, space management, and sustainability. Zuraw is responsible for leading the company’s thought leadership efforts and programming activities at various professional conferences and events. Before joining Sightlines, he was assistant vice president of facilities management at Wellesley College.