Private schools overcoming Great Recession

Monday, March 15, 2010 at 12:45am

For nearly 120 years, David Lipscomb University has held its boundaries.

The college has been as entwined with the plot once owned by its eponymous founder as it has been with its Church of Christ traditions.

But now Lipscomb is busting out, and it’s not the only Nashville private school stretching its limbs as the Great Recession comes to an end.

Not to be outdone by its traditional rival, Belmont University is readying an ambitious growth plan. Vanderbilt continues to upgrade facilities medical, academic and residential.

And that’s just at the post-secondary level.

The traditional single-sex grooming grounds for the scions of Nashville’s well-heeled — Montgomery Bell Academy and Harpeth Hall School — are also planning expansions or capital improvements.

The parochial schools are getting in on it, too. For the first time in school history, Father Ryan’s Fightin’ Irish played an on-campus football game last fall. The school’s Charlotte Pike feeder, St. Ann’s, will begin gymnasium upgrades soon.

The meme of collapsing public schools is pervasive. While it’s certainly not completely true that public schools — at the K-12 and collegiate levels — are forever in dire need of capital improvements, few would be so bold as to say every public education facility is in tip-top shape. As state and local governments face tighter budgets, building upgrades at public schools are put on hold.

Private schools — with their sometimes-heavy endowments — do not face the restrictions brought on by declining tax revenue, of course, but many simply treaded water during the downturn as those endowments took hits when the stock market dipped.

Now, it seems they are ready to build.

Private higher ed booming

Lipscomb is taking perhaps the boldest steps.

The school’s Board of Trustees selected L. Randolph Lowry as president in 2005, and he hit the ground running, proposing a $54 million campus development plan to create new academic programs, increase enrollment and expand the campus.

He called for $40 million in fundraising before 2010, and despite the recession that took hold soon after his inauguration, the school met the goal a year early. Late in 2009, it broke ground north of the traditional campus on Grandview.

By the beginning of the 2010-11 academic year, Lipscomb’s James D. Hughes Center — an arts and engineering building — is set to open. It’s the crown jewel in Lipscomb’s new construction and renovation plan, which included the Burton Health Sciences Center, The Village at Lipscomb, the Thomas James McMeen Music Center and Collins Alumni Auditorium.

Lipscomb’s bricks-and-mortar growth reflects its enrollment growth, and Lowry acknowledges it’s a chicken-and-egg issue — a school can’t grow without new facilities, but without new enrollment, those facilities aren’t often justified.

“Our enrollment has grown 38 percent, making us one of the fastest-growing universities in the state,” he said. “We’ve added 16 new graduate programs and almost 50 full-time faculty in the past four years. Clearly demand continues to grow for the kind of academically rigorous, spiritually challenging and community-based education we offer,” Lowry said.

Even venerable McQuiddy Gymnasium is getting a scrub, although the Bisons now play next door at the nine-year-old Allen Arena.

For years, McQuiddy played host to the Lipscomb leg of the Battle of the Boulevard — the twice-annual hardwood duels between the Bisons and the nearby Belmont Bruins (nee Rebels) — legendary games between two small-college powerhouses that were an amped-up version of church league hoops.

The Battle of the Boulevard plays out in more ways than on the court.

Lipscomb’s had the money to compete with Belmont. Even with 2,000 fewer students, at $78 million, Lipscomb’s endowment is $13 million higher than Belmont’s.

But since 2000, Belmont’s enrollment increased 82 percent, its budget has nearly tripled, and it has built several new facilities. Now Lipscomb is catching up and — in response? — Belmont is set to launch a bold plan for its next five years. That proposal — detailed in the March 8 issue of The City Paper — includes an increase in enrollment to 7,000 and an endowment that would challenge Vanderbilt’s.

Prep schools aren’t much different

Keeping up with the Joneses is a part of life for private schools that want to attract the best and brightest — and strongest and fastest — and to do that must increase their standing and visibility.

It’s no different for prep schools.

Montgomery Bell Academy has been eyeing a campus expansion for more than a decade, carefully scooping up property along the southern border of its 139-year-old campus. Now those property acquisitions are complete, and the school is ready for the long-awaited growth — using its new Brighton Avenue property for tennis courts and parking lots.

The timing of MBA’s expansion is unrelated to the ending of the recession. Headmaster Brad Gioia said the school has been buying up the neighboring property since 1996.

“We’ve been open for a long time about expanding the campus to Brighton,” he said.

MBA’s sister school — Harpeth Hall — recently announced plans for a new athletic facility. A project of much larger scale than the tennis courts at MBA, Harpeth Hall will replace its decades-old gymnasium with a 59,000 square-foot athletic and wellness facility.

Head of School Ann Teaff said the school’s 32-year-old gym represents a “pre-Title IX” era in women’s athletics. Similar to MBA, she said Harpeth Hall’s decision to get started on a major capital project was a long time coming.

“It is time,” she said simply.

1 Comment on this post:

By: bandaidman on 3/15/10 at 2:04

They are expanding now because construction and financing costs are much lower than during the recent "boom" and can be expected to increase in the future (especially financing)