Evolving Campus Part IV: Improving Space Utilization and Capacity

August 7, 2017


From the Rotunda at University of Virginia to the famed Campanile at Berkeley, physical space on the college campus may be an institution’s most commonly associated attribute. It’s no wonder that discussions around reallocating that space are never clear-cut. Yet even with the emotions involved, the nation’s top academic institutions are focusing on ways to improve their space allocation, use, and capacity as a strategic priority tied to their broader missions.

With enrollment either flat or in decline, administrators recognize that significant new construction is unrealistic. In addition, the average American university spends $2,073 per student per year on building maintenance costs1, and the amount of deferred maintenance costs is at an all-time high. Therefore, it is imperative for administrators to identify opportunities to more efficiently utilize classroom space. Discipline in classroom scheduling has taken on a far more prominent role in today’s evolving campus.

By centralizing the classroom scheduling function—rather than relying on individual departments to set classroom schedules—universities are learning that they can make great strides toward improving space utilization, and therefore space capacity2.

To hear it from students and instructors, Harvard Medical School was running out of space for its classes. Staff complained of feeling like they lost the lottery when it came time to schedule courses. Administrators realized they had to abandon their homegrown legacy scheduling system in favor of a more robust central scheduling platform that could generate detailed reports.

"Harvard selected and implemented EMS Software, and soon discovered that their actual utilization of space was hovering around 30%, much lower than the industry average of 50-60% and lower still compared with the 70% utilization targeted by the industry."

As noted in our earlier article, cross-disciplinary learning trends have helped fuel the increase in shared classrooms and other academic spaces. With no certainty over which department “owns” and is responsible for the space, or which course has scheduling priority, conflicts can easily arise. To access jointly owned space, department leaders must rely on a centralized scheduling platform that gives administrators important insights as they seek to optimize space utilization campus-wide.

In addition, the historic trend of decreasing class sizes means that many institutions continue to have wrong-sized or over-sized rooms for their needs. That puts additional pressure on the smaller classrooms that are in high demand. In fact, some notable studies have found that the number of small course enrollments is proportionately larger than the ratio of correct-sized rooms to hold them. Yet when the inventory of classrooms is strategically redistributed, the number of spaces can be reduced by 20% without reducing the number of courses offered3

Discovering “New” Space
An all-too common phenomenon in higher education: the “prime time” demand for classes between 10am and 2pm Monday through Thursday, and some Friday mornings. It is a well-ingrained pattern that leaves students without enough class options, frustrates registrars, and results in a great deal of unused space outside of prime time.

But by centrally managing general purpose space across campus – lecture halls, classrooms – many campus leaders discover that they are reclaiming “new” space that can be used by other departments, whether that campus is high-density or low-density. As soon as centralized scheduling is initiated, up to 40% of space that had previously been managed by departments exclusively becomes available as “swing space” to other departments4. That is because departmentally owned space is underutilized to begin with.

With centralized scheduling, administrators can generate space utilization reports that can reveal opportunities for new scheduling blocks. This reduces the aforementioned pressures, even exposing space that could be taken offline altogether. It is quite possible that the space is underutilized for good reason: not the right size or technology for the type of course. Colleges and universities with centralized classroom scheduling, in fact, are more likely to require fewer classrooms overall than institutions with decentralized processes5.

The benefits of centralized classroom scheduling don’t stop there. On average, department-controlled classrooms hold nine classes per semester, while centrally controlled classrooms hold 136. This translates to a meaningful impact on overall space efficiency: institutions with centralized scheduling have on average 17% less space per student than those without it7.

Making the Switch
Many campuses are finding ways to work with faculty and students to make greater use of classrooms through centralized scheduling that reduces the prime-time pressure on facilities and avoids inconveniences like double-booked classrooms and the cross-campus instructor dash. They are turning to campus-wide meeting and room scheduling software, which offers a comprehensive suite of course scheduling and event management tools in a single platform.

Making the switch to centralized scheduling can be daunting for any academic institution, particularly one with a great deal of legacy space and tenured faculty accustomed to tradition. Despite these institutional constraints, academia is transforming rapidly. Some campuses are implementing a carrot-and-stick approach to support this. For example, some institutions incentivize department heads to turn their space over to centralized scheduling, with quid-pro-quo offers for technology upgrades, waiving of administrative fees or maintenance expenses, and even frequency of janitorial service.

An important advantage of centralized scheduling is the transparency afforded multiple department heads, academic schedulers, and event managers operating from a single platform. Users can assign permissions and resources (such as furniture and technology) for certain rooms, and perhaps most important, send out automated notifications when a conflict needs to be settled, such as when an event is booked in space needed for a class.

Far from putting classroom scheduling on “auto-pilot” or artificially rewarding deans who are either prompt or more tech-savvy with their pick of class schedule, centralized scheduling levels the playing field and preserves the office of the registrar with final decision-making authority. Only after the registrar reviews each department’s course preferences and requirements can the final schedule be published to a campus SIS.

Meeting Elevated Expectations
The upgraded educational purpose and aesthetic of modern campus facilities have raised expectations of today’s students and those of the incoming generation. As technology permeates both the student and administrator experience, the evolving institution has discovered that classroom scheduling software is an essential tool for delivering on its mission to students and stakeholders.

Since its first deployment at Colorado State University in 1986, EMS Software has been the technology partner of choice for hundreds of the nation’s top academic institutions, from private liberal arts colleges to world-class research universities.

For more information about how EMS can assist your campus with academic scheduling and event management, contact us for a complimentary needs assessment.

1American Physical Plant Association
2Sightlines, "The State of Facilities in Higher Education," 2016
3Planning for Higher Education Journal, "Designing Innovative Campuses for Tomorrow’s Students," July–September 2016
4Sightlines, "Find the Hidden Space on Your High-Density Campus," 2015
5Facilities Forum, 2016 Classroom Utilization, Education Advisory Board