Optimizing Your Campus Center Assets

What does better look like? A strategic approach to campus center operations might yield the answer for colleges and universities. 

By: Greg Ross

CENTERS at CSU Student Center Exterior.As colleges and universities slowly find the new normal after the COVID-19 pandemic, Higher Education is at a bit of a crossroads. After collective loses in the billions of dollars, higher education administrators are faced with the task of balancing reduced budgets while reintroducing the traditional college experience for students. Meanwhile, students are clamoring for a return to a robust menu of traditional student life activities and services but without an accompanying tuition or fee hike.   

While the impulse may be to dramatically reduce spending and increase fees, savvy leaders know that smarter spending is key to an engaged community and successful operations. The strategic bundling of sports venues, recreation and wellness facilities, student centers, performing arts venues, and conference facilities combined with the alignment of missions for optimal performance can lead to significant cost savings and efficiency gains while preserving the vibrancy of student life. 

These synergies begin with carefully planning and incorporating the resources of each unit with strategic cost savings initiatives. The goal is to operate more efficiently while staying true to institutional mission, responsive to the marketplace, and committed to providing students a high-quality educational experience at the lowest price possible. There are several mutual benefits that can be realized by bundling and optimizing these resources which can increase the strategic value of each facility and programs overall. Improved facility and resource management, streamlined staffing, consistent programs and services, and enhanced business planning would greatly benefit any one department on campus in many, many ways. So why not compound these benefits by taking that thought one step further and consider what it would look like by combining similar auxiliary units into one efficient department. The combined benefits these operational efficiencies create both financially and culturally for an institution are game changers. Looking at this in more detail, such benefits could include the following: 

Improved Facility & Resource Management: The professional, safe, and efficient facility management practices of contemporary student life buildings are essential. By implementing more effective operating procedures and reducing operating costs, institutions can increase the bottom line and raise the bar by: 

  • Increasing purchasing power through joint ordering of custodial and facility supplies; controlling product quality and managing inventory more efficiently. 
  • Combining marketing and sales efforts to become more profitable and efficient. 
  • Mitigating operational and financial risks through a central oversight and implementing the same onsite preventive risk plan at each location.  
  • Utilizing available space more effectively to maximize revenue. 
  • Reducing general costs by centralizing preventive maintenance schedules and managing down operating expenses. 
  • Centralizing capital repair and replacement plans to provide a more streamlined approach to life cycle management. 

Streamlined Staffing: A more effective allocation and training of human capital and the incorporation of a more efficient staffing model reduce personnel costs and can achieve the following outcomes:  

  • Reducing the workforce by streamlining redundant and/or overlapping professional positions. 
  • Creating a tiered employment structure at all student life facilities that allows professionals and students to take on progressively responsible positions through consistent advancement. 
  • Reducing personnel costs and increasing customer service standards through a combined professional and student employee training program that is streamlined with consistent methodologies, messages, and standards. 
  • Providing appropriate training that accommodates various learning styles across the entirety of the facility operations. 
  • Combining certification methodologies and scheduling of part-time staff within all operations to maximize staff development and customer service outcomes. 
  • Streamlining idea generation and the approvals process by eliminating the siloed auxiliary approach.  
  • Incorporating experiential teaching philosophies throughout the entire organization to contribute to the university’s holistic student engagement and learning goals. 
  • Creating a culture of high expectations that reinforces important life skill behaviors and motivates high performance.  
  • Increasing productivity by allowing subject matter experts to apply their craft and entrepreneurial spirit at more than one facility.   

Consistent Programs and Services: Streamlining redundant programs and services maximizes the benefits of multiple assets without negatively impacting the unique value each asset brings to the campus. Strategies that yield immediate results include: 

  • Utilizing available space more effectively across all locations to maximize participation, grow programs, and increase profit. 
  • Eliminating competing programs and services internally by offering consistent quality programs and services that meet the student’s needs, reduce redundancy, and maximize margins. 
  • Customizing programs and services that will capture a high level of participation and increase sales. 
  • Ensuring a consistent quality, look, feel, and registration process for all programs with one stop shopping for all programs and services. 
  • Streamlining annual satisfaction and assessment needs into one instrument tool to avoid student survey fatigue and increase quality feedback. 

Enhanced Business Planning: Adopting consistent and better business practices among all units to reduce costs and stay focused on goals and objectives can be achieved by implementing the following: 

  • Combining and synthesizing mission-driven financial performance for all assets. 
  • Developing a comprehensive financial model to operate and extend the life of all assets collectively. 
  • Providing a detailed roadmap to reduce operational costs, enhance programs, enhance services, and a comprehensive forecasting tool to meet future challenges. 
  • Aligning values and desired outcomes between the assets in one central operating philosophy and organizational culture so patrons cannot tell the difference. 
  • Demonstrating margins and scalability to respond to increases and changes in demand for services as the institution evolves. 

Obviously, achieving any of the above outcomes would take careful planning and could not be achieved overnight. Institutions need to determine how to become better without compromising the level of excellence that they have already achieved and would need to remain disciplined to avoid perverting their mission or purpose. Additionally, administrators could consider re-aligning their student life assets internally to achieve their desired outcomes or consider partnering with a third-party expert. Decision makers should ask themselves if they have the resources in-house to obtain maximum value with this exercise, or otherwise consider what an expert partner might bring to the table that would move the needle financially and/or culturally.

Finding a partner that aligns with its mission, values, and practices could yield increased leadership, enhanced student development, innovative programming, mission-driven financial performance, asset life cycle management expertise, and additional economies of scale that cannot be achieved alone. However, regardless of the strategies used to realize these synergies, many institutions will position themselves for long-term success and improvement if they simply put themselves through a strategic exercise and ask one simple question, “what does better look like?” The impact could be enormous, the savings significant, and the improvement comprehensive.   

Greg Ross is a former Director of Campus Recreation and is currently the Vice President of CENTERS LLC, a firm that specializes in the management and advisory services for campus centers.