Successful Master Planning

Many American colleges and universities have a master plan. Accrediting bodies often require one. But surprisingly few institutions use their master plan when they renovate or build. Fewer still strive to carry out their master plan. I have frequently been greeted by campus leaders who say something like, “We’re looking forward to your new master plan for our college. Here are our previous master plans for your review.”

Master planning in higher education is necessary and widespread, but it is often ritualistic and unsuccessful. Why? How can the master planning process become a more integral part of an institution’s thinking about its changes and future growth?

In my experience I have found that three factors are especially conducive to successful master planning. By employing them, colleges can develop master plans that really guide their physical growth and even parts of their academic growth. But before describing the three critical factors, I should explain what I mean by master planning and how it is usually put to use.

Portion of Master Plan Model

Portion of Master Plan Model

A master plan is a detailed document (and often a physical model too) that lays out the direction, physical needs, and overall appearance of a college or university for the foreseeable future, which is usually fifteen to twenty years. It is a physical plan based on the academic services the institution intends to provide, on the student populations it hopes to serve, and on the image the college leaders wish to project in tone (conservative-American-Georgian; innovative-progressive, cloistered Gothic; venerable-Colonial; urban-businesslike, high-tech and modernistic, etc.) The plan usually includes a land-use plan; new building needs, location, and type of architecture; renovation needs; a landscape-horticultural concept; a plan for the movement and placement of people and vehicles; property acquisition or development of excess property; and plans for utilities, service areas, garbage disposal, and community use. It also proposes how new structures and landscaping will be harmonious with the older buildings and traditions of the campus.

For smaller colleges – under 3000 students – development of a master plan usually costs $30,000 to $60,000. For medium-sized institutions – 3,000 to 10,000 students – a master plan costs about $50,000 to $100,000. For larger universities, the costs tend to be $100,000 and up, depending on the scope and complexity of the assignment. The total master planning effort usually takes four months to a year.

A master plan seems to be demanded most often when a college or university is going through expansion, a change in academic emphasis, a shift in student clienteles served, or a leap forward in quality. It is necessary, of course, in planning a new college or a new location for an older college.

Why, when a college or university spends money to create a master plan for its future, does it so seldom follow its guidelines?

There are numerous reasons, of course, ranging from change of president or failure to involve faculty, students, and staff in the sculpting of the plan to weak, permissive leadership or a poorly crafted plan. But in my research and experience I have found three primary causes.

Enrollment plans require that the administration and faculty have a fairly firm idea about the number, type, and diversity of students they expect to serve. Will the college stay the same size, or will it grow to a different size? What enrollment is expected, or desired, ten to fifteen years from now? Are the expectations realistic?

What type of student will the institution enroll in the next decade or two? Will the college remain a place for traditional undergraduates? Will it add graduate programs? Will the university move toward a two-tier enrollment with traditional day students and an increasing number of non-traditional, older students in the evening and on weekends? Will it educate secondary students in the summer, or retirees? What about working executives?

Will the institution become more of a regional commuter college, requiring no new residence halls but increased parking facilities, or more of a national college that needs a more home-like ambience and the look and services of an “academical village,” as Thomas Jefferson planned for the University of Virginia?