Meager budgets leave many college students in rickety dormitories

Valerie, a college sophomore, rattles the rotting window frame in her dormitory room. A squad of tough-looking bugs jumps from its hiding place and runs for cover.

"This place is a pit," she says. "The sink is 40 years old. The water goes on and off. And anybody with a penknife could break in through those windows. For this i'm paying $8,000 a year?"

is this the norm for college housing today? Undoubtedly not. There are some slick, modernly-designed student housing facilities across the US which are well kept. But decay in Valerie's old urban dorm is by no means exceptional. Such problems are growing. Thousands of students migrating back to America's colleges and universities are finding their residence halls unpainted, cafeteria roofs leaking, and the lawns spotted with chickweed. Maintenance, deferred in the 1970s for lack of money, was snowballed into a multi-billion dollar problem.

At the University of California-Berkeley alone, the price tag for the list of things to be done is $15 million. For example, $180,000 worth of roofs on campus wear out every year, but the maintenance department can spare only $25, 000 annually to fix them. Administrators have nicknamed the list of repairs the "Crummy and Seedy Project."

At Ohio State University, the maintenance department's "things to do" list is elevators as well as important heating and electrical repairs.

Even the exclusive Bryn Mawr College outside Philadelphia has received an $8 million federal matching grant to help meet deferred repair costs.

Altogether, American institutions of higher learning have put off $22 billion of $35 billion worth of repairs, according to a recent estimate by the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO).

"It's a complicated issue that schools are starting to take a long, hard look at," says NACUBO staff associate Cecile Klayton. "And the problems will be getting worse, because the buildings constructed during the post-World War II boom years are starting to wear out."

Seventy percent of the student centers, classrooms, and college dorms in the country were built after 1950 -- often hastily. Administrators, pinched by general inflation and the cost of fuel oil, are unwilling to spend any more money than is absolutely necessary on repairs. So physical plant directors must stretch their dollars further to keep, say, Geology 101 from being taught in the dark.

"At most schools, the percentage of the budget used for maintenance has stayed the same, but that money must be spend to fix increasingly expensive and sophisticated machinery," says Thomas B. Smith, associate vice-president for physical facilities at Ohio State. "Thirty years ago we only had two airconditioned buildings, and none of them had fluorescent lighting."

Says Peter Welanetz, director of the physical plant at Williams College in Massachusetts: "We try to put an emphasis on things that keep up the life expectancy of the building. We defer things that are cosmetic, like painting."

But many colleges and universities must defer maintenance more crucial than a coat of paint.

At the University of New Mexico, assistant director of physical plant Ned Ross says all his carpenters are kept busy just patching leaks. "We share the problem of deferred maintenance," he says. "Preventive maintenance practically no longer exists."

But putting things off has its dangers. "A $5,000 repair can quickly become a $150,000 replacement," sighs Gaetano Russo, an assistant vice-chancellor at Berkeley.

Public schools are lobbying for increased appropriations to pay their rising costs. Private ones hope fund-raising and more belt-tightening will keep their ivy-covered walls from crumbling. Both types of institutions agree they have yet to fully come to grips with the problem.

"But it's starting to come to the front," says Mr. Russo. "Lots of chancellors and presidents are now listening."

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