Will NYC's College Building Boom Bubble Pop?

New York's universities have grand expansion plans, but could the economy--and online courses--doom them to failure before they've even begun?

Comparatively, the expansions planned by Columbia and NYU are audacious. Columbia is trying to expand by 17 acres in West Harlem, with much of that space going to medical and scientific research facilities. It plans to erect more than a dozen buildings between 125th and 134th streets and promises to create affordable housing as well as 6,000 permanent jobs. (Columbia officials wouldn’t estimate how many more students the new campus will accommodate.) NYU wants to grow by six million square feet by 2031, an increase of 40 percent over its current size. Half of NYU’s expansion would be in Greenwich Village—a plan that still requires rezoning and approval by the city’s landmarks commission and the City Council—while the other half would put new campuses in Brooklyn and on Governors Island. NYU expects the expansion will allow it to increase enrollment by 13 percent, to 46,500 students, over the next 21 years.

But will these schools really need all of this space once it comes online? Ten years from now, will we be downloading courses via Facebook apps onto iPads? Could all that classroom space end up being about as useful as the new home once planned for the New York Stock Exchange? In 2002, the Big Board walked away from a $1.1 billion deal with the city, realizing advances in technology meant it no longer needed a physical trading floor.

Enter the ‘Edupunks’
It’s easy to understand why New York’s universities are optimistic. Last year, NYU saw a record 38,000 applications for freshman admission, four times what it received 20 years ago. Nationwide, college enrollment is predicted to grow 13 percent by 2018, but the U.S. Department of Education cautions that its forecast doesn’t factor in such potentially disruptive forces as the rising cost of college, the changing economic value of a degree, and “the impact of distance learning due to technological changes.”

The troubled economy and changing technology have already fueled a do-it-yourself education reform movement dubbed “edupunk,” which envisions virtual campuses and lower-cost or even free instruction. The edupunks are picking up where traditional institutions left off. Since 2001, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has offered free online lecture notes, exams, and videos from classes. Today, its site gets 1.5 million visits a month, serving 900,000 unique users, and it’s part of a worldwide Open CourseWare Consortium of universities offering free courses online. Other schools, such as Yale and the University of California at Berkeley, are posting video lectures. You can’t get a degree from any of these efforts, but you can learn.

“Early on, there was a lot of concern,” recalls Steve Carson of MIT OpenCourseWare. “What would the students think? What would the parents think? After all, they’re paying lots and lots of money, and here we are giving away the same materials for free.

“But when you talk to students, you find the value of being on campus is access to the equipment, access to the professors, and the opportunity to study with other bright and motivated students,” Carson continues. “There’s a certification and assessment for the learning that takes place—it’s all presented on campus as a big package. MIT took one piece of that and put it up on the Internet, unbundled.”

During the dot-com boom, many universities expended a lot of resources exploring the use of the Internet, but the most prestigious of the lot found they couldn’t charge their customary top dollar for online offerings. Beginning in 2000, for example, Columbia spent $25 million on Fathom.com, which offers online courses taught not only by Columbia faculty but by instructors at such places as the University of Chicago and the American Film Institute. But after two years, and few students willing to pay for classes, Fathom converted into a free online archive of lectures and course materials. (Columbia does offer online courses as well as professional and graduate degrees in engineering and applied science.) NYU abandoned an initial online effort in 2003, though it now offers select graduate and undergraduate courses on the Web through its School of Continuing and Professional Studies, and online degrees in social sciences, human resources and management, and international business.

The early online efforts were meant to “level the playing field and drive down costs,” says Cathy Casserly of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, but mostly they couldn’t replace face-to-face instruction. “I don’t think we’re there yet, because people are still experimenting with how the technology gets used.”

Still, edupunks remain hopeful about unbundling more elements of the campus experience. One site, the Peer 2 Peer University, provides an online community of study groups or book clubs where you can network with other students.

“I think you’ll start to see more of these pieces becoming unbundled,” says Carson, “and savvy students will have the opportunity to recombine them in strategic ways to get exactly what they need.”

Bricks, Not Clicks
Of the planned expansions in New York, NYU’s is particularly remarkable considering that 37 years ago, the school’s financial troubles forced the sale of its Bronx campus in University Heights. Today, university president John Sexton is aggressively pursuing expansions both here and abroad. He says the school’s Abu Dhabi campus—entirely bankrolled by the oil-rich emirate—may soon be joined by a third degree-granting campus in Shanghai. Apart from its new campus, Abu Dhabi has made an unrestricted gift of $50 million to NYU, and it’s reportedly helping to finance Sexton’s New York scheme (though the university would neither confirm nor deny that claim to the Voice).

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