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Building Better Graduation Rates at Kentucky Colleges

More than trendy new looks are behind campus infrastructure construction

By Debra Gibson Isaacs

The largest-ever construction project at Centre College, which is devoted to wellness and athletic excellence, is now underway.

New buildings or major renovations on any Kentucky college campus always create celebration. They improve campus appearance and amenities and enhance learning opportunities in some fashion. But does a new structure or a renovated one make a difference to student success?

“It makes an incredible difference,” according to O.J. Oleka, president of the Association of Independent Kentucky Colleges and Universities (AIKCU).

“When students are able to see new construction on campus, not only do they get the experience that is offered from the new academic or campus-life building that was just built, they also are able to recognize that their tuition and fee dollars are going to make an improved campus experience for them and their peers in real time.

Major construction projects are taking place at independent colleges across the commonwealth.

Read our companion piece: Independent Colleges Construction Projects Related to Student Success.

“Major renovations typically mean more dining options that are healthy and variable, better housing conditions for residential students, and new modes of experiential learning for every student,” Oleka said. “Everybody wins.”

He offers an array of specific examples at Kentucky’s independent colleges and universities.

Consider these: Both Midway University and Alice Lloyd College have completed major construction projects in 2021—without incurring any debt.

Transylvania University’s recently opened student center and Centre College’s in-progress $50 million wellness/athletic facility are investments in updating student life and living/learning environments on those historic campuses.

Modernized libraries and student success centers have been a trend, according to Oleka.

“During the pandemic, the University of the Cumberlands made a significant investment in its library and student success centers,” he said. “Several others—Centre College, Spalding University and Asbury University—have as well.”

Morehead State University has a new student center as of 2018-2019. Its renovation has been vital as a place for students to assemble, dine, take courses, host meetings and for the university to recruit from, said Morehead State President Jay Morgan.

“Without new facilities on college campuses, it is hard to deliver the quality experience that students look for,” Morgan said. “In our case, the student center is the proverbial ‘center of campus.’”

“Investments by the commonwealth are allowing Murray State University to renovate Lovett Auditorium, a nearly 100-year-old classic performing arts center; expand academic programs and campus-life initiatives such as the Curris Center, which is the student center and entry point for prospective students who visit campus; and fund other needed deferred-maintenance projects to enhance teaching, learning and student life for our second century,” said Murray State President Bob Jackson. “New buildings, major improvements to facilities and enhancements for the growth of campus life and key academic programs, such as our new School of Engineering, are essential in the life of a university. Investments in higher education pay dividends in many ways for many years.”

Murray State University’s 81,000-s.f. engineering and physics building features a high-bay engineering systems laboratory, a rapid prototyping center and other engineering and physics labs.

Often the renovations are not just needed but are crucial to meet modern student needs or provide an environment in which they can learn, said Paul Czarapata, who was named the third president of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS) on April 21, 2021.

“We have needs at every college for maintenance, replacement and repairs,” Czarapata said. “A majority of our facilities need new roofs, HVAC, plumbing, sprinkler systems, etc. Some need updated lab equipment and facilities to train students for current and future jobs. There also are concrete and other structural repairs needed. Renovations allow us to serve more students in high-demand fields such as welding and diesel technology.”

Repairs and renovations directly impact students attending the 16 KCTCS schools spread across the state, he said.

“Students are used to having technology embedded in their lives,” he said. “Video and other technology have a direct impact on students. A lot of faculty like to teach in interactive environments as well.”

KCTCS also adapts existing facilities for newer uses when possible, Czarapata said. For example, a library space created and set up for books became an active learning center for nursing with new seating arrangements, technology and Wi-Fi.

At its 73 locations, KCTCS has 334 buildings with an average age of 32 years, and many have had no major repairs or renovations since they opened. This means water jetting, a new cutting technology, cannot be taught in many current structures because the hydraulics of buildings cannot hold up to the water pressure of water jets.

This goes from important to critical when new businesses open or are in the works, such as the $5.8 million BlueOval SK Battery Park that will create 5,000 jobs in Central Kentucky. Twin vehicle battery plants in Hardin County will supply Ford’s North American assembly operations with battery systems to power electric Ford and Lincoln cars and trucks for several decades. BlueOval SK will have a training site but still will rely on additional training capability from surrounding colleges and universities in Kentucky—the very kind of training KCTCS provides.

“While the proposed training facility at BlueOvalSK Battery Park in Glendale, funded by Senate Bill 5, will provide new programs and a transportation focus, it does nothing to address other critical manufacturing fields,” according to Juston Pate, president of Elizabethtown Community and Technical College.

KCTCS is working hard to keep their training spaces up to date to best reflect the work environment students will find upon graduating.

Pate is making a legislative request to renovate and grow existing training facilities at ECTC “to serve 5,000 new workers and prepare for the ripple effect of the largest economic investment in Kentucky history,” he said. “We must expand the critical workforce areas housed in the Occupational Technical Building. These programs cannot be replicated in the training facility at Glendale, especially since much of that facility will be built for battery plant training.”

Pate echoes much of what Czarapata said about KCTCS schools in general.

“These preservation projects will allow the colleges to serve more students in various academic and technical programs, including high-wage, high-demand areas in industrial maintenance, industrial electricity, robotics, welding and other advanced manufacturing disciplines,” Pate said. ‘These much-needed renovations will support student services and student success. Research shows environment plays a big role in student success.”

Compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) creates the need for improvements as well, Czarapata said.

The legislative request for funding in the next budget for KCTCS as well as those of the eight public universities, is submitted through the Council on Postsecondary Education (CPE).

“CPE has requested state funding of $700 million in the upcoming biennium (2022-24), matched with $350 million in institutional resources, to address asset preservation on the public postsecondary campuses,” said CPE President Aaron Thompson. “This funding will address about 15% of the system’s $7 billion estimated asset preservation need for education and general facilities. This would be the first major infusion of capital funding since 2014-16.

“While CPE’s focus in the biennial budget request is on asset preservation, we know that institutions have new construction/expansion projects that are very important,” Thompson added, “and we are not opposed to institutions pursuing funding for these projects.”

Thompson cited a 2013 study in which facility consultants projected that unless sizable investments in asset preservation were made in coming biennia, renovation and renewal needs of campus facilities would exceed $7 billion by 2021. Since 2008, the state has invested $281 million in postsecondary institution asset preservation projects, or about 3.8% of the total projected need.

The recommendation calls for $700 million, or $350 million in each year of the biennium, to maintain and make repairs and upgrades to state-owned education and general (E&G) facilities on campuses, which excludes athletic and auxiliary buildings.

Owensboro Community and Technical College is working to help meet the high demand for trained welders.

The Council also recommends that the institutions contribute 50 cents for every state dollar spent on asset preservation, with flexibility to meet the match over three biennia. The combination of state funds and campus match will address about 15% of the projected total needed to preserve campus facilities.

Thompson said the “whack-a-mole” approach to maintaining deteriorating buildings costs more money over time than sustained investment.

“The urgent need for the renovation and repair of our existing facilities has built up over time to a magnitude that will require a long-term commitment from the state and campuses to adequately address,” said Thompson. “Protecting these valuable state-owned assets is the fiscally responsible thing to do and the right thing to do for Kentucky students since modern facilities and systems reduce operating costs and better serve students.”

Indeed, each of the public universities has specific desires and needs. For example, University of Kentucky Executive Director of Public Relations and Marketing Jay Blanton said that among UK’s priorities “would be partnering with the state for investments in modernization and renovation of infrastructure on our campus—an initiative that would directly support the success of our students.”

A Penn State study summed it up well: “Improving the quality of school facilities is an expensive undertaking. However, when the positive impacts of facility improvements on teachers and students are translated into dollar figures, the rewards of such investments far outstrip the cost of the investments.”

The study concluded that there are five primary facets of school facilities: acoustics/noise, air quality, lighting, temperature and space. All are directly affected by the quality of the facilities.

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Morehead State University’s renovated student center provides a modern space for students to gather and connect.