Higher-education construction has been recession-proof nationwide, but particularly in New York City. The city has more than 500,000 higher-ed students, more than anywhere else in the U.S., and building is expected to continue, said speakers at ENR New York's "Higher Education" conference, held on Oct. 16 in New York City.

Most of the new recruits have grown up during the digital age and expect their schools to be suitably equipped, speakers said. Besides adding housing and classrooms, schools are expanding or retrofitting space for state-of-the-art technology as well as science, technology, engineering and math studies, in support of the city's aim to be a STEM hub.

The trend is evident especially in well-funded private institutions, such as Columbia, Fordham and New York universities. All have massive building programs underway, as does the public City University of New York. CUNY is in the midst of a multibillion-dollar program to boost STEM studies. Projects include City College's $350-million Advanced Science Research Center in Manhattan, which is about to open.

CUNY has about $3 billion to spend during the next few years at its network of schools. "The good news is that it's being spent. The bad news is, we need more," said Risa Honig, CUNY's Dept. of Design, Construction and Management assistant director. "When the market was in a downturn, CUNY was booming and able to design and get funding for many projects. We experienced good bids, so many of our projects are under construction or nearing completion." Now, however, it has many projects stuck in design because they lack funding, she adds.

Speakers said schedules have become vitally important, with less opportunity to take facilities offline, which costs schools revenue and dampens recruiting. They urged contractors to build strong relationships with their subcontractors and materials suppliers. Other cost issues include New York City materials and labor costs, which they expect to rise 3% or 4% per year for at least two years.