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America's universities in building boom

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts (Reuters) - From Stanford University on the West Coast to the Ivy League schools of the Northeast, U.S. universities are in the grip of a building boom that looks set to extend well into 2009.

Reasons for the whirl of construction activity vary -- from a surge in enrollment as children of the baby-boom generation enter college to growing competition in China and other Asian regions for the world's top scientists.

Educators add that surviving on a high-school degree is harder than ever in America, pushing more people into university, while some schools in big cities want a larger slice of the lucrative student landlord market, building dormitories to capture more rental income.

Backed by rising tuitions and growing endowments, schools are also piling on amenities unheard of just 20 or 30 years ago -- from condominium-style residence halls with suites boasting private kitchens, bathrooms and living rooms to state-of-the-art recreation centers resembling country clubs.

At University of Missouri, a newly renovated $43 million Student Recreation Complex that opened in August stretches over 300,000 square feet -- including cardio and fitness rooms, an aquatic center, a DJ booth and a juice bar.

"Parents want not only quality academics but they also want a quality of life in our institutions that perhaps 20 years ago or 30 years ago parents were not so concerned about," said Claire Van Ummersen, a vice president at the American Council on Education, which represents more than 1,800 colleges, universities and organizations involved in higher education.

Some institutions like University of California, Stanford and Harvard University are upgrading aging infrastructure -- in part to head off rising enrollment with 2009 expected to bring 3.2 million high school graduates, the highest ever.

New construction on U.S. college and university campuses could peak at 34.5 million square feet by 2009, surpassing a 31-year high in 2002, a study by McGraw-Hill Construction said. In 2006 alone, new campus construction rose 18 percent.

Few places are experiencing the boom like Boston, a student destination where universities are planning about two dozen new buildings, including museums, research centers and a new residential high-rise tower that could reach more than 30 stories over the city's historic Back Bay.

'NEED THE SPACE'

"We really need the space," said Roger Brown, president of Berklee College of Music, which unveiled plans this month to spend $300 million in building new complexes and other projects in Boston over the next decade.

Applications to Berklee, one of the world's best music schools, have surged 72 percent in two years but lack of space has kept total enrollment to 4,000 students. "It means it has become much harder to get into Berklee," Brown told Reuters. "Only about 30 percent of students who apply are accepted."

Harvard, the world's richest university with a $29 billion endowment, is planning a new multibillion-dollar campus in neighboring Allston; Boston College is finalizing plans for a campus overhaul; Boston University, Emerson College and Northeastern University have all done recent upgrades.

In total, more than 5 million square feet of construction is in the works on Boston's campuses, according to an analysis by The Boston Globe.

"We are going to have a group of very handsome buildings by very good architects," said Pamela Delphenich, director of project management at MIT, which announced last month plans for a $750 million expansion spanning one million square feet.

America's top research institutions also face growing competition in Asia. China, Singapore and India, which in the past sent many students to the United States, now boast burgeoning higher education sectors competing for tuition.

China wants its top universities to be the world's best within a decade and is spending billions of dollars on first-class research labs to attract top-tier scientists. India and Singapore are also pouring state money into higher education to gain an edge in so-called knowledge industries.

"As other nations ramp up their research capabilities it's important that this country maintain its capabilities and strengthen them, and we're seeing that now," said Barry Toive, spokesman for the Association of American Universities, which represents 60 top research universities.

RACE FOR BIOTECHNOLOGY

Some institutions hope to emulate MIT's success in building a biotechnology corridor in Cambridge's Kendall Square where executives and researchers from private biotech and pharmaceutical companies rub shoulders with MIT's scientists in a nexus that draws investments and jobs to Massachusetts.

Baltimore is also building up its biomedical capacity with the construction of $250 million federal laboratory at Johns Hopkins University. In Rhode Island, Brown recently announced the biggest expansion in the school's history -- the purchase of seven buildings in the state capital Providence near a major hospital. Brown says the area could be used for life sciences.

"Many universities have been ivory tower-like in their view of research and are now seeing the success of leaders in this area over the last decade like MIT and Stanford and so on," Dick Spies, Brown University's executive vice president for planning, told Reuters.

"There's real advantages for everybody of being more activist, of coming out of the ivory tower," he said. "There's a way of the leveraging investments universities are making."

This could mean higher costs at many American schools. While some of this is shouldered by expanding endowments, tuition and fees are growing at a faster rate than inflation, rising on average 7.1 percent at public colleges and universities in the 2005-06 academic year.

Few see that trend changing. Already, the number of U.S. students who graduate with at least $40,000 in debt rose tenfold between 1993 and 2004 to about 77,500 from 7,000, according to the Project on Student Debt in Washington.

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