In 2007, the price tag of the two new residential colleges was projected to be nearly $600 million. Six years later, cost projections have fallen by almost $100 million.
Although the University has curbed construction costs for the project since the recession, the residential colleges remain more expensive than most residential college construction projects at Yale’s peer institutions in recent years. And with a price tag of approximately $500 million, the new colleges are also among the most expensive capital projects on any single site in Connecticut. Though 10 faculty members interviewed declined to comment on the cost of the new colleges, 10 other professors said the importance of expanding Yale College through the establishment of two new residential colleges justifies the planned expenditure.
“I think one has to take a holistic and a longer term view of any capital project,” School of Management professor Ravi Dhar said in an email. “I trust the [University’s] overall strategy and commitment to ensure capital projects are built for the long term.”
Morse College Master Amy Hungerford — who serves on the Ad Hoc Committee of the Yale College Expansion and the Budget Committee — said the original plans for the new residential colleges were made before the financial recession, at a time of budget surpluses.
She said the University reconsidered those plans once a $250-million gift from Charles Johnson this fall made it possible to begin moving forward again on the colleges, which will be funded entirely using donations rather than the University’s budget. As work had already been done to prepare the building site for the original plans, Hungerford said the options to change cost structures were somewhat limited. Despite these constraints, she said she believes the University has made good attempts to rein in costs.
“I’m really quite convinced that this administration understands that there is not an endless supply of money, and I feel this administration is really taking a hard look,” said Peggy Deamer, Assistant Dean of the Yale School of Architecture and member of the University Budget Committee. “I feel there is a sincere concern whether money is being spent in a responsible way.”
Provost Benjamin Polak, who co-chairs the Ad-Hoc Committee on the Yale College Expansion and chairs the Budget Committee, could not be reached for comment this week.
Though Dhar said faculty members do not have enough information to assess whether $500 million is too much or too little to spend on the residential colleges, he stressed that “cutting corners” on capital project expenditures is unwise in the long-run.
The new buildings will be in service for at least a century, so there is little margin for error, said chemistry professor William Jorgensen and Ronald Breaker, chair of the Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology Department. When the University does not devote resources to build state-of-the-art buildings, the results can be “endlessly problematic,” Jorgensen added.
Institutions that must balance long-term financial planning against shorter term operational needs often make the mistake of ignoring capital improvements and instead focusing on short-term needs, School of Management professor Thomas Kolditz said. But the longer institutions wait, the more it costs to perform the improvements, he said, adding that the construction of Yale’s new residential colleges seems to be a “pretty wise move.”
“We need to consider the fact that most of the large projects, including the new colleges, will create the infrastructure and the building-scape that will affect the Yale community for the next 200 years,” Breaker said. “We’ve got to get this right, even if it means we will pay more for a building than Princeton.”
The costs of Yale’s new residential colleges are significantly greater than those of recent capital projects at Princeton University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Princeton University’s Whitman College — a 500-person residential college similar to one of Yale’s — opened in the fall of 2007 and cost a total of $136 million. Five years earlier, when the Massachusetts Institute of Technology spent less than $94 million on the 350-student Simmons Hall, the building’s elaborate architecture and high cost was widely reported in the media.
The per-student construction cost of Simmons Hall was $268,000 — more than quadruple the national average of $48,387 per student, according to a 2008 report by American School & University magazine. In contrast, the per-student cost of Yale’s new residential colleges, which will house 400 students each, will be approximately $625,000 per student.
Given the cost of the two new colleges, two professors interviewed were not convinced that the expenditures are sensible.
“There has been a culture at the University that every building has to be done to the highest aesthetic quality,” said School of Management professor and University Budget Committee member Judith Chevalier.
School of Management professor Fiona Scott Morton ’89 questioned the wisdom of prioritizing capital spending over other University initiatives.
She said the real value that Yale provides to society is the way professors change how students think and how well they think.
“The University clearly needs buildings to fulfill its mission, but in my opinion the priorities of our decision-makers have skewed somewhat in the last decade away from teaching and research and towards property,” Scott Morton said. “You need a building in which to teach [students], but the expenditures on it need to be balanced so as to also allow expenditures on the other inputs into learning.”
Still, School of Management professor Olav Sorenson said adding the donor-funded colleges is a prudent financial move. The 15 percent increase in the size of the student body will bring in additional revenue in the form of tuition, he added. The new colleges will also help Yale recruit faculty and expand educational opportunities for students.
Fundraising for the new colleges is set to be completed by the end of the year, though the colleges still needed an additional $75 million in funds as of October 2013.