Auditor Faber Calls for Updated Strategic Plan for Higher Ed Facilities as Enrollment Increasingly Shifts Online


 

Columbus – The Ohio Department of Higher Education (ODHE) should ensure the state’s public colleges and universities are submitting up-to-date information annually about their facilities – data that are needed in determining future capital investments for maintaining aging buildings, constructing new ones, or shifting resources to accommodate increasingly online learning, according to an audit released Tuesday by Auditor of State Keith Faber.

The Higher Education Facilities Performance Audit of data from Ohio’s 14 public universities, 24 regional campuses, and 23 community or technical colleges also recommended ODHE complete an updated strategic plan, given enrollment trends away from traditional on-campus classrooms to virtual-learning environments.

“The nature of higher education has changed over the past decade,” Auditor Faber said. “We need to make sure we’re directing our limited public funding to best meet those changing needs. There will be difficult decisions moving forward about what to do with underused buildings.”

The report is the latest from the Auditor of State’s Ohio Performance Team, a group of professionals with backgrounds in the public and private sectors that reviews the operations of different government agencies and programs and offers recommendations to improve their efficiency and effectiveness.

Ohio’s public colleges and universities are required annually to report to ODHE details of the nearly 120 million square feet of interior space they own or lease and use for classrooms, administrative offices, libraries, and residence halls.

In years past, the data were used by state lawmakers when finalizing biennial capital budgets and allocating funding for building improvements or new construction projects. However, since FY2013, budget allocations have been based on recommendations from the Higher Education Capital Funding Commission, with facilities data used sparingly in making decisions.

The most recent state capital budget, covering Fiscal Years 2021 and ’22, included about $486 million for higher education.

As part of its higher education facilities audit, the Ohio Performance Team recommended:

  • More uniform collection of facilities data, with checks for accuracy: While the department still requires facilities information to be submitted annually, compliance has been more sporadic, with the most complete data available for state auditors’ review dating to 2018. According to state auditors, “… it is still an important resource for ODHE and other policy makers in understanding the footprint of Ohio’s public colleges and universities. However, this information becomes less useful if it is not collected in a timely and consistent manner.”
  • Improved access to facilities information by policymakers and the public, including data on student enrollment and online coursework trends: Up-to-date information is needed as budget decisions are being made. The state has allocated about $21 billion in higher education facilities since 1960 and will continue to allocate funds for repairs, renovations, and replacements. According to state auditors, “The current inventory of facilities is quickly reaching what is considered the end of its useful life. This means that costly renovations and demolition and new construction will be necessary in the near future. However, based on enrollment trends, it is possible that the current inventory of buildings may exceed the actual needs at some institutions.”
  • An updated ODHE strategic plan to guide higher education facilities decisions through the next decade and beyond: The last plan was completed in 2008, though the national Government Finance Officers Association recommends regular review and updates of such plans. A new strategic plan should include updated criteria to benchmark facilities space needed per in-person student. According to state auditors, “Many of Ohio’s higher education facilities were built in the late 1960s or early 1970s. These facilities, which are 50 to 60 years old, are reaching the end of their useful life cycle, and institutions are currently facing the decision to renovate or replace existing structures… (T)he use of facility space going forward will be drastically different than in the 1960s and 1970s….”

The performance audit also recommends further study of the potential issues arising from the rapid growth in online coursework. For example, Eastern Gateway Community College saw its enrollment jump nearly 785% (to 40,036 in 2020 from 4,527 in 2016), almost exclusively due to increases in distance learning. Last year, the college was placed on probation by the Higher Learning Commission, an accreditation body. According to auditors, “While the growth through online education can be done successfully, considering the rate of expansion associated with EGCC, it and other institutions emulating a similar model should be monitored to ensure that quality is not sacrificed when student quantity is pursued.”

The full report of the Higher Education Facilities Performance Audit is available online, along with a new dashboard with details of facilities in use by public colleges and universities.