JLF Triangle Blog

Why Are There So Many Empty Classrooms On College Campuses?

Duke Cheston writes a very interesting piece on the utilization of classroom space on college campuses. On one hand, we continually hear students demanding more sections  of courses. On the other hand, classrooms sit empty for big chunks of the day and evening. I wonder if any legislators will ask questions about this data. They should.

The 17 schools in the University of North Carolina system had an average classroom occupancy of 44 percent in 2009, according to a 2010 study by the system. According to a different study by the UNC administration, its Facilities Inventory and Utilization Study 2011, North Carolina’s community colleges do even worse: the average classroom was used only 18.4 hours per week, or 26 percent of the standard school week. (Four private colleges in the state — Campbell, Mars Hill, Barton, and Pfeiffer — also were part of the study, and they averaged 23 percent classroom usage in 2011).

This suggests that costs are higher than necessary. The average American university spends $2,073 per student per year on building maintenance costs, according to the American Physical Plant Association. The savings that could be realized from more efficient classroom use are substantial. Western Kentucky University, for instance, was able to save more than $345,000 during the summer months alone by making some improvements in classroom use, including temporarily closing energy-inefficient buildings.

In some ways, universities’ apparent poor use of space is the opposite of what one would expect. Colleges have the ability to schedule classes throughout the day and evening, and prestigious universities like UNC-Chapel Hill have no difficulty finding enough students willing to fill classes. Why then do colleges leave so many rooms empty?

Some observers have suggested, based on the pattern of classroom use through the day, that colleges simply give in to the desires of students and professors to sleep late and go home early. At Appalachian State University, for example, 80 percent of classrooms were used during the 11:00 a.m. hour, but only 31 percent were in use at 8:00 a.m., and the evening hours had much lower usage rates.

There may be some truth to that, but other factors, such as limited availability of large classrooms or technologically sophisticated classrooms, also make efficient space use difficult.

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