Guest Column - October 2005
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Are Recreational Facilities and Education Directly Linked?

National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association


In this space last year, we discussed "Recreational Sports: A Valuable Aspect of College and University Life," citing a report commissioned by the National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association (NIRSA) that was subsequently published in book form by Human Kinetics, NIRSA's partner in publishing. That book, The Value of Recreational Sports in Higher Education (January 2004), details results of surveys, conducted by Kerr & Downs, that reveal a consensus among responders on a range of personal benefits to be derived from participation in recreational sports.

To summarize the report, a total of 2,673 interviews with college students were completed across 16 campuses during February 2002. The study found that participation in recreational sports programs and activities is a key determinant of college satisfaction, success, recruitment and retention. Surveyed students further believe that participating in recreational sports reduces stress, improves self-confidence, builds character and makes them feel like they are part of the college community. These students report that their involvement with these activities improves their interaction with diverse sets of people, teaches team-building skills and heightens their leadership skills. Moreover, the research showed that 75 percent of all college students participate in campus recreational sports programs. (The sampling error given a 95 percent confidence level was +/- 1.9 percent.)

The release of additional NIRSA research in the recent "Collegiate Recreational Sports Facility Report" reveals that the construction trend in student recreation facilities, increasing since the early 1990s, is continuing unabated. The December 2004 survey collected data on NIRSA Member Institutions that recently undertook, are planning to undertake, or have completed new construction, remodeling and/or expansion of student recreational sports facilities between 2004 and 2010. Survey results reported that 333 colleges and universities have just completed or are involved in facility planning, construction, remodeling and/or expansion projects through 2010. Total student enrollment for the 333 reporting colleges and universities is nearly 3.8 million, with an estimated 2.85 million college students participating in campus recreational sports programs. The average expenditure for each new construction, addition, remodel and/or expansion among 223 colleges and universities that reported financial data is more than $14.2 million.

With the February posting of this report on the NIRSA Web site, reporters from several news arenas began to weigh in on the topic. A posting of "Recreation Centers Used to Woo Students" on April 1, an Akron, Ohio-based report, cites NIRSA research and details luxury highlights of facilities under construction in Ohio, Massachusetts, Indiana and Michigan, with the conclusion that "colleges around the country are touting their recreation prospective students to stand out in the competition for applicants." This article gained the attention of staff writers on the Cavalier Daily (University of Virginia, Charlottesville) and the Daily Iowan (University of Iowa, Iowa City), who cited recreation facility construction projects at their respective campuses as essential items on the schools' recruitment agendas.

Most recently, a June 24 report, "U.S. Colleges Get Swanky: Golf Courses, Climbing Walls, Saunas," depicted a negative side to this prevailing construction trend, arguing that the proliferation of state-of-the-art design features, both in recreation facilities and in other campus areas such as performing arts and residence halls, serves only to drive up the already high cost of education. Of the "hundreds of luxurious new amenities rising on U.S. college campuses," says Bloomberg reporter Liz Willen, "few of these projects are directly related to education." Without offering comment from recreational sports professionals, the article quotes only administrators, such as a college president who contends that colleges campuses and facilities should adhere to "a more Spartan aspect" that is "more conducive to learning." [The complete article can be found at].

NIRSA research maintains a different conclusion, however, and we stand firmly behind it. The conclusion found by the Kerr & Downs report, which was offered for use but not incorporated into the Bloomberg report, confirms the salubrious impact of recreational sports in higher education on student success and effectively counters the theory that learning only can be achieved in more ascetic surroundings. Recreational sports professionals foster a more holistic approach to the success of students. Participation in fitness and wellness activities and in recreational team sports contributes to the health, well-being and education of the whole student, helping to render his or her academic life more productive—and successful, which is the ideal held dear by all educators.

The construction of increasing numbers of exceptional facilities to accommodate recreation is therefore a natural and laudable progression, one which we have long honored with our Outstanding Sports Facilities Awards. We stand by the lessons NIRSA research has taught us, and by recreational sports professionals, the fulfillment of whose mission enriches the lives of their students and all who pass through the doors of their facilities. After all, students carry the benefits they have found in fitness and recreation into their daily lives after their university years, and that makes the world a much healthier place.


Barry Brown is marketing director for the National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association (NIRSA), a leading resource for professional and student development, education, and research in collegiate recreational sports. For more information, visit