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?

The Abu Dhabi school is part of a larger push by U.S. universities to create international franchises, and Sexton has proved adept at putting the touch on foreign donors, whom NYU may have to count on to supply future generations of students. NYU ranked 11th in donations among U.S. universities last year, compared with 27th in 2001, the year Sexton was named president. Columbia, however, turned down an offer to open a law school in Qatar, president Lee Bollinger revealed in May. Over time, a degree-granting campus abroad might struggle to attract the same quality of students and faculty. “The biggest concern is you dilute your reputation,” Bollinger told Business Week. “You lower the quality of what your institution is offering.” Much of the emphasis of Columbia’s expansion is on research, though it will also add new classrooms and residence halls, a performing arts center, and a jazz club.

On face value, NYU’s massive expansion in New York City carries the risk of mortgaging the future: While the university refuses to attach a price tag to its plans, the widely reported $3 billion tab would cost about $1 billion more than what NYU’s total endowment is worth today. “The time is right,” Sexton explained. Interest rates are low, and real estate is depressed, but the pressure on school endowments may make them less likely to offer financial aid. NYU’s expansion could end up looking like a land-speculation deal as much as an educational one. A planned 38-story tower on Bleecker Street would end up holding not only faculty housing but a luxury hotel.

“It’s wouldn’t just be a hotel that NYU would use for visiting professors or conferences,” explains Andrew Berman of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. “It would be like a Marriott.”

New construction under way at Columbia
archpaper.com
New construction under way at Columbia
Buildings in the works for John Jay
e-architect.com
Buildings in the works for John Jay

Current students have been less enthusiastic about expansion plans. A year ago, students at the New School and NYU took over their cafeterias in part to protest the planned expansions at both schools. The New School students said a new $350 million tower would mean they’d lose their library for several years—their entire academic careers there.

“The school wants us to make sacrifices,” said Lucas Heartstone-Rose, a New School senior studying political science and biology who was involved in last year’s protests. “Class sizes have grown; tuition has gone up. Are they even thinking about me?”

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