Prioritizing Higher Education Projects in a Changing Economy

Project prioritization has never been a simple task for facility managers. Pla


Project prioritization has never been a simple task for facility managers. Planning projects in a continually changing economy only heightens the complexity of these critical decisions. With contrasting opinions mounting as to which projects really deserve focused attention, higher education projects can quickly become subject to inaccurate prioritization.

While attracting prospective students and encouraging donor engagement remains a critical factor, financial and maintenance restraints are often unforgiving. To regain perspective on the priority of projects, we can start by examining the following questions.

  • If your project team is at full capacity, is your prioritization efficient?
  • With tight budgets and significant time lost, what will it take to sustain recovery in the long run?
  • Are you using 3rd party external resources correctly?

To address these questions in full, we must first understand the way in which projects are currently being prioritized. From there, we can re-evaluate the pattern and build a strategy around sustained resilience in the face of a changing economy. 


The basis for successfully executing projects starts with project prioritization. In short, this step is where you connect your sequence of projects to the overarching strategy and gain executive support and sponsorship.

Poor prioritization results in project failure and, as a result, the failure to meet overall objectives. Accurate project prioritization processes allow organizations to strategically align their resource allocation decisions while producing more successful projects. To incorporate effective and finely grained project prioritization, project leaders must have a thorough understanding of each project and its implications to make fair and objective decisions about the Campus Plan as a whole.

Project management and resource allocation can become overwhelming for teams faced with multiple concurrent “high priority” projects. Not only must we manage the threat of misaligned goals, but also the uncertainty surrounding the evolution of education, and the potential loss of major assets. For this reason, project prioritization holds an essential position in the overall real estate journey within a Campus Plan.


With tight budgets and significant time loss due to the pandemic, many higher education institutions are deliberating what it will take to truly maintain steady growth in a rapidly evolving economy.

Recordlike scarcity in both financials, commodities and human resources makes deciding where to allocate them even riskier – because a wrong decision can have grave repercussions. Yet management must make resource-allocation decisions — and quickly — to prepare for recovery and re-opening. At the same time, however, they must keep an eye on the horizon and set up the organization to succeed when the dust settles.

Because of the weight and complexity around these choices, the process for evaluating projects must be scrupulous and impartial. Abbott’s professionals suggest implementing the following five steps:

  1. Establish guidelines for project prioritization. Your strategic goals will decide the parameters you use to prioritize projects. (i.e., scope/deadlines)
  2. Determine the potential of your resources. How much time does each project need from your team? Is prioritization successful if the team is overburdened? Have you onboarded a 3rd party Owner’s Representative?
  3. Compile and coordinate data on current and future projects. How many projects are currently in the works or being planned across the organization? What is the current status of each project in terms of time, scope and budget?
  4. Assess the Campus Plan. Which initiatives should be approved, and which should be put on hold for the time being? Which of these can run in tandem?
  5. Develop a continuous project portfolio management process. What steps should you take to ensure that project evaluation and prioritization is reviewed regularly to verify relevance to the Campus Plan?

To deliver projects efficiently and equitably, prioritized projects should address the future needs of students and integrate new design tools and technologies.

Higher education institutions need to be selecting projects that can both spur financial recovery in the near term and make the most of available funds. Specifically, facility management might consider prioritizing projects that strengthen foundational infrastructure, reduce environmental impacts and encourage sponsor/donor support to maintain a steady path for continued growth.


Many higher education programs focus on capital projects that immediately absorb resources, which often places project delivery in a risk prone situation. As institutions face aging buildings and growing maintenance backlogs, the students’ experience is impacted, critical research efforts are impaired, and institutions are ultimately prevented from achieving their strategic goals.

To spur recovery and sustain long term growth, attention needs to be centered around the easily overlooked smaller scale projects. From there, sustainability initiatives can be implemented intentionally and rationally. As a result, allocating resources becomes more manageable, and the success of projects is further protected, meaning saved time and money.

Prioritizing in this way can lead to a set of projects that generally fall within one of four categories:

  • Foundational infrastructure/maintenance projects to sustain the new path of growth. These projects use predictive maintenance programs to streamline deferred maintenance work order completion and reduce costs in the long term.
  • Projects that support sustainability initiatives. A priority in the face of a growing consensus about the importance of achieving net-zero carbon emissions and increased government regulations. Renovating facilities in a power plant to adapt for the long term or installing upgraded technology within new or existing facilities. (i.e. polychromatic glass and rainwater harvesting)
  • Upgrading existing infrastructure in a “smart” way. These are initiatives that incorporate new technologies and design to greatly enhance infrastructure operations while lowering costs and reducing environmental effects. These projects are focused on transforming non-renewables to renewable assets.
  • Modular and repeatable projects. This project model is predicated on the completion of construction and the absence of a need for site-specific design. An example could include an energy-retrofit program that retrofits multiple buildings with tested, replicable energy-efficiency technologies that meet the requirements while lowering energy usage and costs.


An unbalanced portfolio results in rapidly rising team frustration and project failure rates. Additionally, prioritizing based solely on overall value can easily lead to an unbalanced portfolio.

Balancing your portfolio allows you to: 

  • Match the work you take on to the resources you have available to complete it; ensure that all teams are adequately supported.
  • Ensure you do not end up with a project that is solely comprised of high-risk programs.
  • Deliver distinct value in support of the various strategic objectives.

One of the most important aspects of developing a strong Campus Plan is the opportunity to see “balance” of project demand vs. resources across organizational departments, KPIs, and other factors. This ability not only aids in making informed decisions, but also encourages buy-in and support from key stakeholders.


The heart of integrated project support is collaboration. Stakeholders and project teams meet on a scheduled and structured basis to address issues, partner on solutions, and conduct forward strategies. 

Integrating external teams allows organizations to address any specified lack of proficiency and resource scarcity throughout the complete project process. However, with shared reward also comes shared risk, which means all parties must have confidence in one another to make the best decisions for project outcomes.

Key benefits of integrating external teams:

Advanced Coordination – With an integrated approach, stakeholders are alleviated the amount of time previously required to invest in the project, allowing them to maintain an appropriate time commitment to engage when necessary. Because of this, the focus on precise project planning is heightened, which leads to a more thorough understanding of the project’s direction. This knowledge strengthens coordination between business units – while aiding in improved teamwork and ensuring more efficient construction execution.

Transparency – Consistent teamwide meetings to discuss project details and the innovative task allocation program to create complete transparency amongst team members. Furthermore, the use of software to capture project information keeps and records all project data for optimal visibility and transparency.

Saved Time and Cost – Contracts with integrated external teams stipulate incentives for team members. Therefore, accountability and motivation levels are increased to deliver projects strictly according to budget and time schedules.


Regaining perspective on the priority of different higher education projects captured in the Campus Master Plan requires a conscious effort to see the big-picture perspective. This often involves a shift of focus from capital projects that immediately absorb resources, to instead prioritizing essential maintenance backlogs and aging infrastructure.

Perhaps the most significant area to re-evaluate is team capacity, resource allocation and external support. With a balanced, skilled, and experienced project team, institutions can navigate tight budgets and significant time constraints; making the most of opportunities and maximizing assets to block out the overlapping opinions and focus on solutions for the needs at hand. As daunting as changing requirements may seem, successful project prioritization is both possible, and within reach. By working in collaboration, we drive sustained recovery and clarify your vision for a lasting and rewarding relationship with donors, faculty, and students alike.

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