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5 Creative Funding Solutions for a Healthier, Connected Campus

As students return to school this fall, colleges and universities must optimize campus environments while decreasing operational costs. Here are planning and funding strategies for making safe, connected and energy-efficient campuses a reality. 


When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, colleges and universities were looking for simple, effective and affordable solutions to keep students and faculty safe while continuing to provide the best possible education experience. Now that vaccines are readily available, institutional leaders are enacting plans to bring back a full student body while working to create healthier, more sustainable and efficient campuses for the long term.

Creating a healthier campus is a complex process, one that requires major facilities improvements — which can often seem financially impossible for university leaders. Campus leaders need integrated solutions, but the reality is that most campus budgets were impacted by a loss of revenue and enrollment due to the pandemic.

This challenging economic environment does not change what students expect and deserve: to learn and live in safe, healthy, comfortable and sustainable environments. On campuses across the country, administrators face the seemingly overwhelming challenge of optimizing campus environments, lowering energy costs, decreasing operational costs and reducing environmental impact. It is possible to achieve these goals and create comfortable, quality learning environments that operate more intelligently and efficiently.

What to Consider and How to Plan

It's crucial that university campuses maintain building infrastructure and encourage healthy spaces for their students and employees while keeping in mind their own sustainability goals and carbon footprint. When it comes to maintaining a healthy campus, essential upkeep and addressing deferred maintenance is a critical first step to ensure a safe facility that operates seamlessly and empowers facilities managers with the tools to maximize building use. Additionally, continued maintenance is a clear-cut way of ensuring energy efficiency and optimizing space usage in order to meet sustainability goals. Further drivers of energy efficiency, such as central utility plant retrofits and optimization, can also lead to substantial cost savings over time and reduce the campus carbon footprint, providing a clean and pollution-free environment for the surrounding communities as well.

Next, campuses should work to embrace public health with connected safety tools that ensure indoor air quality and create spaces that keep people healthy. Advanced HVAC filtration can increase air flow and mitigate airborne viruses, delivering optimal indoor air quality in campus spaces. Installing touchless access control solutions can create a seamless environment that will reduce touchpoints in and limit the potential for bottlenecks in high-traffic community spaces, including common entryways, faculty spaces and student dorms. This technology can also provide facility managers with useful data regarding who is entering and exiting the building and from where, serving as a built-in security measure. Through a connected suite of solutions, facility managers can better understand and leverage data to proactively manage risk and maximize building efficiency and performance, resulting in a greater return on investment for campuses.

For comprehensive security, it's important for universities to consider additional life safety elements that can protect students, faculty and visitors in the case of a violent incident. In addition to touchless access control solutions that provide insights into who is entering campus spaces, mass notification systems (MNS) can be critical in emergency situations. When integrated with other security solutions such as gunshot detection, video surveillance cameras and remote monitoring systems, mass notifications can be sent to mobile devices to alert both students and staff of potential or active threats and other emergencies on campus, ensuring all campus occupants are aware of the situation and can find safety. With colleges and universities expecting full campuses in the fall, it's more important than ever to ensure student safety in the event of an active shooter.

Once leaders decide how to use funds, it's possible to offload the burden of navigating infrastructure financing options and maintenance to a third-party expert. Bringing an external expert onto your team can not only ease the process of resource planning, but also ensure universities maximize energy savings and boost sustainability initiatives. That partner can manage operations, including maintenance and retrofits, diagnose and resolve problems and aid the site management team to ensure energy targets and performance-based agreements are being met. Campus leaders can have peace of mind knowing that their facilities and spaces are in good hands.

Cross-Functional Collaboration and Decision-Making

Building an effective plan to ensure a healthy and sustainable campus and improve resilience for future risks, such as natural disasters, pandemics and violent incidents, is no easy feat. Decisions around improvements are made with the wellbeing of students, faculty and staff in mind first and foremost, so they can return to campus assured that their health, comfort and experience are priority number one.

Modern procurement methods provide cost savings that allow campus executives to invest resources that would otherwise be spent on upgrades back into core university initiatives like student life, education initiatives and financial aid. On top of that, building maintenance becomes more efficient with integrated technologies, granting facility managers enhanced oversight on operations. As students return to campus, a greater focus is placed on the campus environment. Ecology and ethical governance are a growing expectation and demand from students and are a selling point during admissions season as students consider their college and university options.

Modern resource planning methods rely on data-driven decision-making; therefore, having modern, digital and connected technologies allows for unprecedented data insights, both internal and external to the campus.

Funding Methods: What Are My Options?

Universities can leverage new and innovative funding and procurement solutions to continue moving the needle on campus sustainability, facility efficiency and the health of students, faculty and staff. Thanks to innovation in funding and procurement strategies, university leaders can alleviate financial stress on the campus budget while guaranteeing savings that can be diverted elsewhere, such as student programs, learning labs and other initiatives that directly impact student life, productivity, education and revenue generation. The most common approaches include federal funding options and alternative procurement methods.

Alternative procurement options address budget shortfalls and help colleges and universities improve infrastructure and operational efficiencies, reduce their environmental impact and create smart learning and living environments that will continue to attract and retain students. Popular funding methods that don't rely on government support include Buildings as a Service, public-private partnerships, contingent payment programs and energy-saving performance contracts.

Option One: Federal Financing and Grants

According to the Johnson Controls Pulse Survey on Higher Education, 27 percent of colleges and universities are utilizing economic stimulus and recovery plans to compensate their building investments. A trusted partner can work with campus leaders to identify federal funding options that are best suited for the individual campus needs. Federal financing options include The American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act of 2021 as well as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act of 2020. These plans provide one-time aid to support businesses of all types through the 2020-2021 COVID-19 pandemic and economic crisis. Specifically, the ARP allotted $170.3 billion for K-12 schools, higher education and related programs, with nearly $40 billion for the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF II), while the CARES Act provided $14 billion for the HEERF.

Additionally, colleges and universities can benefit from grants, including from the U.S Department of Education, the U.S Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation. An experienced partner can identify qualified funding opportunities, facilitate and develop applications as well as provide support to help universities manage reporting and compliance requirements for these grants. For instance, Southwestern Oregon Community College was awarded $500,000 combined in energy grants from Energy Trust of Oregon and Oregon Department of Energy, allowing the college to put resources back into education and set aside capital to use to react to equipment and building failures.

Option Two: Buildings as a Service

Buildings as a Service (BaaS) plans allow building owners to transfer the full lifecycle risk of building operations to a third-party vendor, improving a building's total cost of occupancy, energy and carbon profile and the wellbeing of their occupants without facility managers having to manage — or even think about — the process. This allows university leaders to remain focused on their primary mission: education. Additionally, because this method supports outcome-based decision-making centered around integrated data, BaaS can also help universities reach environmental stewardship goals.

For example, the University of North Dakota was able to build a new steam plant to optimize energy efficiency on campus, thanks to a partnership that combined BaaS and Public-Private Partnership (P3). The contract enabled campuswide improvements aimed at providing a better experience for students.

Option Three: Public-Private Partnership

P3 plans are similar to (and compatible with) Buildings as a Service in that both allow building owners to transfer the full lifecycle risk of building operations to a third-party vendor. However, the P3 model is focused on helping schools, governments and hospitals accurately budget and manage new buildings and upgrades with private-sector partners. Specific benefits of this partnership include creating budget certainty, avoiding budget overruns and creating a fixed cost of occupancy, all while creating local jobs and promoting economic development.

Option Four: Contingent Payment Program

Contingent Payment Program is a utility arrangement that provides variable payments based on performance. For example, Merced College recently leveraged a Contingent Payment Program to address deferred maintenance and upgrade infrastructure across campus, requiring no upfront costs for the upgrades.

Option Five: Energy-Saving Performance Contracts

Energy-Saving Performance Contracts (ESPC) are driven by legislation at the local and state level. In this model, energy and operational savings gained over a fixed period are used to offset the cost of building improvements.

Thanks to these various funding solutions, campus leaders can put their plans into action to install a connected suite of solutions that will make the most out of limited budgets and offer a greater return on investment to make healthy, connected and sustainable campuses a reality.

As these real-world examples from universities show, creative funding mechanisms drive sustainability initiatives, waste reduction and overall community improvement. All of these factors contribute to added resiliency, allowing colleges and universities to respond to future emergency events with ease. To deliver on the newfound demand for sustainable, healthy and safe campuses that enable students to thrive, universities need to embrace new methods of funding infrastructure projects that create healthy spaces that support a healthy community and a healthy planet.

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