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Lean times over, colleges building to attract students

August 26, 1997

WALTHAM, Mass. (AP) _ The usual summer silence on the Bentley College campus was broken this year by the pounding of jackhammers and heavy equipment.

For the first time this decade, the private business university is building to meet an anticipated increase in enrollment. It’s part of a national building boom at universities and colleges that were forced to delay construction projects during leaner times in the early 1990s.

But there’s a twist. Much of the work is going into dormitories, student unions, dining services and fitness centers to meet rising expectations of new students, who university officials say pit one school against another based on amenities.

``We are compared to our competition, so if they have a fantastic athletic center, students want to know if we have a fantastic athletic center,″ said Joanne Yestramski, chief financial officer at Bentley, which has 6,400 students.

With tuition, room and board already at $22,310 a year, Bentley is spending $9 million to convert apartments into contemporary suites, remodel the cafeteria and build offices to accommodate the new faculty advisers demanded by students.

Competition isn’t the only thing driving this boomlet, university officials said. Administrators cite renewed donations, low interest rates, rebounding enrollment and technological advances that require extensive rewiring. They also point out that some buildings dating from the last big expansion in American higher education in the 1960s are more than 30 years old.

``If things have been on the drawing board for a while, dollars are available again to do some construction,″ said Wayne Leroy, executive vice president of the Association of Higher Education Facilities Officers.

Dorms and dining halls are easiest to add or rebuild because the work can be underwritten using loans or bonds leveraged against future revenues from student fees, rather than contributions that could take years to collect.

But keeping up with the Joneses seems a major motivation.

``Having a gymnasium is not enough any more,″ said Retha Lindsey Fielding, spokeswoman for Keene State College in New Hampshire. ``Our students are asking for a building where they can enjoy indoor recreation year-round. They want office space for their organizations and more than just books in the bookstore.″

St. John’s University in New York and William Paterson University in New Jersey are building food courts with Burger King, Taco Bell and other franchises, while Notre Dame is upgrading a food service facility to increase menu selections to more than 100 entrees. It is also renovating three residence halls and building a new recreation center, and has already spent $7 million on a residence hall computer network.

These trends make some uneasy. Critics contend the flurry of construction hides the fact that classrooms and offices continue to be neglected. Two industry associations estimate American colleges and universities need $26 billion in long-delayed maintenance.

``Revenue-producing buildings are easy to justify, but many of us are not solving our deferred maintenance problem because it’s hard to raise money for maintenance,″ said William Brown, president of Bryan College in Tennessee, which plans a new fitness center, student union and dormitory renovations.

Many of the improvements also come with extra costs for students and their parents _ not in tuition, but in separate residence and dining fees.

The new apartment suites opening this week at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay, for example, have private rooms with common living areas and cost students $2,280 per year _ $400 more than traditional dormitories.

New fitness or recreation centers, residence halls and student unions are planned or under way at no less than 13 colleges from Maine to California.

``There’s been a real shift in expectations and nobody wants to blink,″ said Ray Ritchie, vice president for enrollment services at Philadelphia’s La Salle University, which has added fully equipped townhouses for undergraduates.

``Families are looking for bells and whistles, and a student union that looks like the lobby of a cruise ship is going to make a more profound impression than a biology lab that has the latest microscope,″ he said.

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