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August 23, 2021

Pandemic doesn’t slow CT private college campus expansion plans

Wesleyan University is planning to build a new $255 million, 193,000-square-foot science center (shown below) that will replace its Hall-Atwater Laboratory. RENDERING | Payette Architects

Colleges in Connecticut and nationwide have been in a campus construction arms race for years — spending billions of dollars annually to build shiny new buildings in hopes of attracting potential student recruits.

And it appears not even a global pandemic will slow those efforts, as three Greater Hartford colleges — University of Hartford, University of St. Joseph and Wesleyan University — prepare to debut, or start construction on, newly renovated or brand new, multimillion-dollar facilities.

And while the new buildings are located on different campuses and in different parts of the state, they all share one thing in common — they’re catering to growing degree programs in health care, science and technology.

Those are all sectors that are expected to see significant job growth in the years ahead, and have become major competitive areas for local colleges, which have been increasingly fighting over a shrinking consumer base.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in computer and information technology occupations, for example, are projected to grow 11% from 2019 to 2029, much faster than the average for all job categories.  The labor bureau projects there will be more than 531,000 new jobs during that time.

Employment in healthcare occupations are also projected to grow faster than average, according to the labor bureau, which estimates jobs in health care will grow 15% by 2029, adding 2.4 million new jobs.

The Francis X. and Nancy Hursey Center for Advanced Engineering and Health Professions at the University of Hartford is expected to debut this month.

Growing opportunity

Nursing is the largest healthcare program at the University of Hartford, but the school is also seeing an increase in students seeking other related programs like physical therapy, respiratory care and radiologic technology, said Cesarina Thompson, the school’s dean of the college of education, nursing and health professions.

For those reasons, the private college built The Francis X. and Nancy Hursey Center for Advanced Engineering and Health Professions, which is on track to debut later this month.

Rhona Free

The school is spending $58 million on recent construction projects including the new 60,000-square-foot building and upgrades to other classrooms and lab space on campus.

The University of St. Joseph (USJ) in West Hartford had the same idea when it expanded and renovated a nursing education and simulation center at the college.

The Wesleyan University campus in Middletown

USJ President Rhona Free said the college has seen the greatest growth in healthcare programs, including nursing, health science, nutrition, exercise science, public health, pharmacy and physician assistant.

“That’s where we see the most interest from students and where we see great workforce needs, so we really wanted to make sure we were providing outstanding education in those areas and that requires having the right facilities,” said Free.

In the last four years, healthcare and science majors, such as biochemistry and biology, have increased from representing 45% of USJ’s student population to 49%, for a total of 1,200 students, she said.

Meantime, Wesleyan University, the private, liberal-arts college located in the heart of Middletown, is planning to build a new $255 million, 193,000-square-foot science center that would replace its aging Hall-Atwater Laboratory building.

“It’s not adequate for the admissions of the laboratory work and the teaching of sciences that we want to continue in the future,” said Wesleyan President Michael Roth of the preexisting structure.

While the project is still in the design phase, it’s on track to move into construction planning this fall, Roth said, with the project’s debut still a few years away.

New buildings, new offerings

The plans for Wesleyan’s new science center, which will make room for a new environmental studies program and a minor in integrated design, engineering and applied science, come before the school finishes another large renovation of its Public Affairs Center. That $55 million project began in June and should be completed in 2024, according to Roth.

Michael Roth

While the size of the Public Affairs Center will remain the same, the renovated space will offer advanced learning in programs such as computational analysis in campaign advertising, machine learning and artificial intelligence, Roth said.

“This will serve more of our students and classes than any other building on campus,” he said.

The University of Hartford’s new Hursey Center will feature technology-focused labs for advanced studies in areas such as robotics, 3D printing, mechanical engineering and cybersecurity. It will also include several labs, such as a simulation suite, to advance the school’s health sciences programs.

Specialty insurer Hartford Steam Boiler recently announced it was sponsoring an Internet of Things lab at the new building that will be equipped with smart technology capabilities, giving UHart students hands-on training with sensors and other related technology.

The new facility also created a path for the school to offer two new programs: exercise science and occupational therapy, according to Thompson.

The University of St. Joseph’s newly renovated and expanded Center for Nursing Excellence will grow the school’s lab space and move toward simulation learning, Free said.

For example, the school will now offer students learning on high-fidelity manikins, which can mimic human body functions, like breathing, heart palpitations and a pulse rate.

Health care, however, is not the only growing program at the school, Free said, adding that USJ has also had an increase in students interested in athletics or fitness.

To meet this demand, the school spent about $16.2 million to renovate and expand its O’Connell Athletic Center that will double in size to 31,000 square feet.

Funding strategies

The colleges have taken various routes to fund their projects, but they are each tapping into the bond market.

UHart is mostly funding its campus construction projects via a 30-year public debt offering. The remainder was funded through donations and industry partners like Hartford Steam Boiler, Stanley Black & Decker, Hartford HealthCare, and Pratt & Whitney, the college said.

There is also a $2 million pledge for an endowment gift to cover future expenses related to the new building.

Wesleyan’s science center will be funded through green bonds, donations and money the school put aside over the years that was invested and grew to about $60 million, according to Roth.

“That helped us have confidence to go to the bond market knowing that we were building up our reserves,” Roth said. “And given the low interest rate environment, it made sense to put money in the endowment and borrow at a very low interest rate.”

The college has also been fundraising for the projects, which has been exceeding expectations, Roth said.

The University of St. Joseph’s athletic center was primarily funded with bonds through the Connecticut Health and Educational Facilities Authority, and its Center for Nursing Excellence was funded by gifts from trustees, alumni and friends of the university, according to the school.

And USJ is not stopping there.

Free said that in a few months, another $3 million project to construct new labs for the pharmacy program, which is relocating from downtown Hartford’s XL Center to the school’s main West Hartford campus, is set to begin.

The project is expected to be completed by next summer.

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