Campus Recreation

A Look at Trends in Recreation at Colleges and Universities

Millions of parents pack their young-adult children up every year to send them off to colleges or universities across the country to further their education, but further educating their young minds goes far beyond the classroom to include their entire campus life experience. Recreation and sports activities are just one part of that experience, and while critics may complain that some of the newer, impressive recreation facilities being built on campuses across the country are contributing to a rise in the cost of a higher education, smart administrators understand the real value of providing these kinds of facilities. Recreation and sports facilities on campus aid recruitment, contribute to alumni involvement down the road, provide good employment options for students and, most importantly, take higher education, well, higher.

"Those who are in campus administration who are enlightened understand that it's not just about putting student in an academic setting in the classroom for a few hours. It's about their entire higher education experience—how they'll develop, whether they'll become good citizens, good alums, whether they'll be educated and have a successful history at that institution," said Kent Blumenthal, executive director of the National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association (NIRSA). "How can you isolate or excerpt a student from the rest of their environment?"

Blumenthal compared the major university to a caregiver that essentially helps provide guidance to students, many of whom are away from home for the first time.

"Universities have an obligation to provide safe and healthy environments," he said. "So at some level, the expenditures on these campuses for health and fitness centers are as much for the parents as they are for the students. It gives them peace of mind, as well as providing fitness and wellness to the students. Healthier students also translate into more educated students, students with a greater capacity to learn, greater stamina, greater self-image and so on. That's what it's about."

As the facilities grow and improve, more people—students and faculty alike—are using them. Colleges and universities differed very little from the general survey population in terms of increases in the number of people using their facilities. From 2005 to 2006, more than 63 percent said that number of people using their facilities had increased, and another third saw no change. Less than 3 percent said there was a decrease in usage that year. From 2006 to 2007, nearly two-thirds project an increase, and from 2007 to 2008, nearly seven in 10 respondents project an increase in the number of people visiting their facilities.

Despite the increasing usage of their facilities, substantially fewer colleges and universities are experiencing increases in revenues, when compared with the rest of the survey respondents. From 2005 to 2006, just 41.7 percent of college and university respondents reported an increase in revenues, compared with 54.3 percent of all survey respondents. By 2007 to 2008, just over 50 percent of colleges and universities are projecting increases in their revenues. (See Figure 37.)

Of course, the funding wheels often spin slowly on campuses, with many committees and people to approve budgets and student fee increases. However, the slower increases in revenues among these facilities surely contributes to the large number of respondents (73.5 percent) who named budgets as a primary concern.

One Texas-based respondent said an increase in the student fee for recreational sports was an imperative. "If we do not receive it in the next three years, we will be forced to cut programming."

Another respondent summed up the way budget issues have a ripple effect across the board: "Budgetary concerns are always an issue for public institutions of higher learning.

This impacts staffing, equipment purchases, maintenance, programming and marketing!"

Colleges and universities also reported significantly lower-than-average operating expenditures for their facilities, For fiscal 2006, the average operating expenditure for these facilities was $967,396—18.1 percent lower than the average for all types of facilities. That said, operating expenditures for college and university recreation facilities are projected to increase at a slightly faster rate than those of other survey respondents. By 2008, college and university respondents projected an average operating expenditure of $1,058,723, a 9.4 percent increase over the average for fiscal 2006.

This compares to the average 8.2 percent increase expected for facilities of all types.

Campus Work

Among survey respondents, the third most common issue of concern, both now and within the next three years, was staffing issues. More than 50 percent of respondents from colleges and universities said staffing was a major concern for their facility.

Blumenthal said he believes that the expectations of college and university administrators are going to increase. "I think their expectations of performance of their employees, of delivery of services, of expectations to perpetually meet student needs will accelerate," he said. "Having said that, I think that's going to translate into the pressure being on these professionals to stay on top of cutting-edge knowledge, information and technology—to really focus on skills and aptitudes that people have, which will then translate into taking training or expectations for certifications to a higher level."

As the schools compete for the best students, faculty and staff, Blumenthal explained, they'll need to stay on the cutting edge in many areas.

"Our job as professionals who offer training and certification and the like is to make sure that the staffs and professionals who operate and manage these multimillion-dollar facilities have the right knowledge and tools so their student bodies, their faculty and their staff are well-served."

Colleges and universities employ substantially fewer full-time, seasonal and volunteer staff workers than the average survey respondent. In fact, between now and 2008, colleges and universities are actually projecting a 3.5 percent decrease in the average number of full-time staff employed at their facilities. A 9.4 percent decrease in seasonal staff is also projected. These facilities seem to be planning to replace the lost staffers with part-time help, as a 4.9 percent increase in part-time employees is projected for the same period. Because they rely so heavily on student staffers, universities and colleges employ 73.1 percent more part-time workers than the average survey respondent, which presents unique challenges—and solutions—that others can learn from.

"Campus recreation is the largest employer of the students of any campus entity," Blumenthal said. "What does that mean? We're talking residence, student unions, foodservice—it's the largest employer. Campus recreation professionals have taken that to a whole other level. What they offer to the students they employ are opportunities while they're in school to learn leadership skills, customer service skills, financial management skills, facility management and physical plant skills, programming skills, supervisory skills and hiring skills. So when it comes to what does the facility offer, it offers recreation and fitness, but it also offers huge opportunities as a training ground for people to enter the workforce with all the right skills for a service economy. They're working with people all the time."

The positive benefits of student employment go both ways, Blumenthal said, because the students working in the campus recreation facilities are not necessarily majoring in kinesiology, sports administration, sports marketing or recreation.

"What happens is, so many of these people, once they become juniors or seniors, or once they graduate, say 'I like this. This is a big responsibility. I want to stay in campus recreation. That's what's led to a large number of graduate assistant programs offered through campus recreation," Blumenthal explained. "So students who may graduate in some other discipline may go on to get a graduate degree in campus recreation. It's an asset."

This relationship pays off even further in the long term, Blumenthal explained, because campus recreation helps breed loyalty. "They breed people who have an affinity for that school, and that may translate into financial giving down the years," he said.

What's more, because campuses can expect turnover from year to year, they are able to create outstanding training opportunities for student employees.

"Think about that," Blumenthal emphasized. "Now what's the value of campus recreation? It goes beyond the student body. It goes to the people helping to support that service who are students. Then take it one step further. Look at all the advocates for campus recreation out there because of the high student employment that the campus is able to breed with these facilities. It's the greatest thing a campus can do."

In addition to educational opportunities, college students employed at college sports, fitness and recreation facilities can earn certifications to apply to further their careers once they are out of school. Some 85.5 percent of colleges and universities require certification of some kind for their staff members. The most common certifications required include lifeguard certifications, personal training certifications, CPR and first aid certifications, aquatics management or pool management certifications, coaching certifications and climbing certifications.

Recreation on a Budget

Blumenthal pointed to a January 2007 article in The Oregonian, where author Randy Gragg writes, "…today, a university's most important building is its student recreation center."

"How many people are willing to say that?" Blumenthal asked.

John Miller, an associate professor of Sport Management at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas, likened the trend toward building bigger and better recreation centers on college campuses to an arms race.

"I think what you're seeing more and more of is that colleges are building these outstanding facilities. They're beautiful, just architecturally gorgeous, and they're offering everything from aerobics to tae kwon do," he explained. "It's getting to a point now where you have to have it. You have a room for Spinning classes, you have an aerobics area, you have TVs on treadmills-you have all these things to entice people to work out."

Among our survey respondents, those from colleges and universities were less likely than the general survey respondents to be planning to build new facilities, add to their existing facilities or renovate. However, those who were planning to build were planning to spend more on average than nearly any other constituency covered by the survey.

Nearly one-third of respondents representing colleges and universities said they had no current plans for new facilities, compared to just a quarter of general survey respondents with no plans. Those colleges and universities that do plan to add on, renovate or build new tended to favor renovations and additions to new facilities. Still, just under 30 percent of colleges and universities are planning to build new, which is a substantial number of new recreation facilities going up over the next few years. In addition, nearly 35 percent are planning to add to their existing facilities, and 44 percent are planning renovations.

There are a lot of issues that drive the need for more space for recreation on campus, from competition between various user groups to the need to deal with increasing usage.

"We have space constraints with our facility, which is a multi-use situation used by the Fitness Center, Physical Education Department and the Athletic Department, as well as community groups," said a Wisconsin-based respondent. "We have long-range plans to renovate our current facility and add on."

Citing similar concerns, one Oregon-based respondent said the main concern was sharing space with academics and athletics. "Their increasing/encroaching needs are forcing our programs into worse and worse hours."

On average, colleges and universities plan to spend significantly more on their facilities and renovations, with an average planned spending amount of $6.1 million—59.7 percent more than the average across all facilities.

Nancy Freedman, a principal with Sasaki Associates, an award-winning architectural firm with offices in Watertown, Mass., and San Francisco, said one of the reasons the costs skew higher among colleges and universities is because they typically build bigger facilities. And those facilities, she said, have a big impact on campus.

Before getting started on planning the new facility, it's important to determine what should be included. "You don't build it for yourself," Blumenthal said. "Find out what the people want, and you build it for them. That brings success."

Freedman mentioned several ways colleges and universities can reconcile the high costs of building new with worsening budget crunches.

"One, try to make the building efficient," she explained. "The rule of thumb is you can get 65 percent efficiency, but if you're careful about designing, you can get up to 75 percent efficiency. For example, if you can design the fitness area to wrap around the gym, you don't need a hallway. You kill two birds with one stone and gain a lot of efficiency. You're building less circulation space. You can do the same thing with lounges and juice bars. Make it bigger, but also have it serve a separate function. It can be more effective too, because people can see and be seen that way. You can kill those two birds with one stone and not devote a separate room to a lounge."

Sustainability is also an important factor to consider, especially when it comes to long-term operational benefits, Freedman said. "There are opportunities that might save you in the long term, as more people think about LEED and sustainability," she said. "For example, your typical recreation center is going to be a big building with a big roof, and you can collect your rainwater and maybe even use it to irrigate the sports fields. You're preventing runoff and saving water for irrigation, You can even use it as graywater. These things will become more prevalent as the cost of water goes up. There are other examples as well that should be considered beyond initial cost."

Another way to help cope with smaller budgets, Freedman said, was to plan for alternates in the bidding process.

For example, she said if you are considering adding some racquet courts to the building, you might design them as a wing, so the building can be designed and bid with the courts as an alternate piece.

"Then as the bidding comes in, if you don't have the money, you just don't build that part," she said. "There might be other pieces you could do like a third or fourth basketball court. The running track could be thought of that way, because it's a chunk of money and it might not be the highest-priority piece. From the time you start planning and programming a building, a couple of years can pass and the bidding environment can change, so what you think you can afford now might change."

Fantastic Facilities

When it comes to trends in recreation facilities, one that Freedman has noticed is a trend toward more openness.

"Newer facilities tend to be more visually open," she said. "You can see one area from another. If you're working on a cardio machine, you can see squash courts, or on the running track you can see lots of different areas as you're running around."

The most common amenities currently included in college and university facilities we surveyed included locker rooms, fitness centers and indoor sport courts for games like basketball and volleyball, as well as racquet sports. More than 80 percent of respondents included these amenities as part of their facilities. Approximately two-thirds of respondents from colleges and universities also included bleachers and seating, natural turf sports fields and outdoor sport courts for games like tennis and basketball. More than 50 percent included running tracks and indoor aquatic facilities.

Though they weren't among the most common amenities listed, colleges and universities were at least 10 percent more likely than the average survey respondent to include synthetic turf sports fields, which were included in 31.3 percent of their facilities, as well as climbing walls, included in 28 percent of facilities.

The top 10 amenities colleges and universities are planning to add to their facilities in the next three years include:

  • Synthetic turf sports fields
  • Locker rooms
  • Fitness center
  • Climbing wall
  • Running track
  • Indoor sport courts
  • Concession areas
  • Bleachers and seating
  • Outdoor sports courts
  • Natural turf sports fields

Things like climbing walls and squash courts tend to be more regionally and culturally focused, according to Freedman. "There are some schools where squash courts are more popular," she said. "Same thing with climbing walls. There's no consistent choice to definitely put one of those in."

The list is headed off with synthetic turf sports fields, and Blumenthal agreed that more and more of these fields are appearing on college campuses.

"Where there's money available or they make the case, you're seeing more of them," he explained. "I think that demand for team or group intramural sports events is rising. I've heard that across the board, that intramural activities are expanding once again, and the usage of the fields and field time has become an incredible premium. So synthetics are a way they can get greater mileage and more use during the day, and they're less subject to climatic conditions."

Blumenthal said that hand-in-hand with synthetic fields, schools are also installing field lighting. "That's because if you have a field, number one it's not lit, so in the winter you're out at 5," he explained. "With the lighting, all of a sudden you can play until 2 in the morning."

The second most common amenity colleges and universities were planning to add were locker rooms, and according to Freedman, there's a much wider variety of locker rooms being built these days.

"We're definitely seeing more variety of locker rooms," she said, "including family locker rooms that are more like private bathrooms with a place to leave your stuff. That's for everyone from the father coming in with his 3-year-old daughter to swim in the pool to people going through transgender transitions. It may be called a 'family locker room,' but it's really just another opportunity for more privacy."

She added that these locker rooms tend to be spacious, handicapped-accessible, and provide more variety with a smaller investment of space.

Many locker rooms in colleges and universities are being built more like locker rooms in health clubs, Freedman explained. "We're seeing more upscale locker rooms, and it's becoming more of a recruiting tool," she said. "It's been that way in varsity facilities for a long time, but it's becoming even more so for recreation centers because they're getting closer to health club standards. You're going to see this more and more with the younger generation. They're growing up with their parents, and even their grandparents, belonging to health clubs."

And sometimes, Freedman said, the locker room isn't even necessary. "We're seeing more hallway-type lockers," she said. "So people can come in their sweats and throw their things in the locker in the hallway. We might put one near where you get on the running track, one next to the fitness center. It's local to what you're doing. When you finish your workout, you're on your way. That's a good way to get more bang for the buck."

Fitness centers were the third most common option that campus recreation centers are planning to add over the next several years, and general fitness was the fourth most common issue respondents at colleges and universities were concerned about. More than 50 percent said this was a top concern on their campuses.

"Fitness is becoming the heart of the facility," Freedman said. "It used to be the gymnasium, but now it's the fitness center with the cardio and weight machines. That's going to be the most highly used part of the recreation center."

And in fitness centers, as in locker rooms, more variety is coming into play, as well as a respect for the different ways people choose to work out.

"What we're seeing is more facilities that want to have a variety of neighborhoods of fitness equipment," Freedman said. "You might have an area of circuit, an area for heavy weights, an area for light weights."

This allows different kinds of people to feel more comfortable using their selected workout machines.

"Athletes and men tend to use the heavy weights; women use the lighter weights. Some people weave in selectorized machines with the cardio," Freedman explained. "So this way, you don't have to walk from one end of the building to another."

Another way the fitness center is adapting to its variety of patrons, Freedman said, is by offering places to see and be seen, as well as places that offer more privacy.

"Some people like the big social place—you go in your beautiful workout clothes," she said. "And while there probably are people who thrive on that, there are more people who feel less good about their bodies and thrive on privacy. So you might have pieces of cardio equipment in much smaller groupings, or in a bay window looking out at the view outside. That way, somebody who's still trying to lose 50 pounds feels more comfortable over there, and not like they're in the meat market."

Women's programs are also on the rise, Freedman said, and that corresponds with some design trends in campus fitness facilities as well.

"Women are becoming more than half of the student body, and they're getting more interested in fitness and exercise," she said. "We're seeing more and more people pay attention to women with things like the lighter-weight areas and more privacy."

The variety of equipment is growing as well, with more kinds of machines for people to work out on, from the expected stationary bikes, treadmills and now-ubiquitous elliptical trainers to things like cross-country ski machines, rowing machines and more.

"We're seeing more square feet per student in the fitness area, and some of that may be because fitness equipment is getting larger, and because people are more aware of the space needs around the equipment," Freedman said. "There's ever more variety of equipment out there, and people want to spice up their routines. You need a variety of equipment to do that."

Variety and flexibility of space extend to the group exercise rooms as well, where more schools are asking for rooms of varying sizes to suit a wider variety of activities and class sizes.

"Where you'd get two group exercise rooms of the same size before, you now divide that square footage up into more rooms," Freedman said. "That way, the instructors can see more people in the room and give more individualized instruction. Also, when you have four rooms instead of two, some might be more private and some might be more visible."

Popular Programs

Fitness programs, mind/body balance and educational programs head the list of programming opportunities currently offered at college and university facilities, followed by adult sports teams, such as intramural sports, sports tournaments and races, swimming programs, personal training and individual sports activities like running clubs or swimming clubs.

Within the next three years, the most commonly selected programs colleges and universities are planning to add include nutrition and diet counseling, followed by personal training, educational programs, mind/body balance programs like yoga and tai chi, and fitness programs.

But beyond programming, Blumenthal of NIRSA said that the trends in campus recreation fall into three areas: student learning, health and wellness, and sustainability.

"In all of those trends, the campus recreation or recreational sports components are taking what they currently do, and they're expanding the vision of the department and their reach relative to the sustainability and the health and wellness," he said. "As far as student learning, they're starting to use the language and assessment techniques that have been out there in other campus arenas to assess the impact and the positive attributes that campus recreation brings to the whole student."

Multiple respondents cited student wellness as a top concern.

One Illinois-based respondent said, "Working with a college student population, we are finding fewer and fewer healthy students entering college."

Another respondent from Pennsylvania said coming up with new and innovative programming was the main concern, adding that "trying to get the students motivated into caring about their bodies and their well-being" and "trying to motivate the students into caring about their own physical fitness and staying physically fit" were important issues.

The addition of nutrition and diet counseling, as well as personal training, may be due to a tendency among recreation programs to partner with health services to deliver improved wellness to the campus, a trend Blumenthal has noted.

"I've seen that more and more campus recreation programs are collaborating with health services to provide wellness-related services, strength and conditioning counseling and personal training," he said. "Every school seems to be adding personal training to their repertoire with different rules on whether it's outside people who come in, or student workers who get trained and certified to deliver that service. But we are seeing more and more collaboration with campus health services to provide a variety of other kinds of things, like diet and nutrition counseling."

Blumenthal said that Oregon State University has taken this trend to a whole new level. "It's not just that they have student health services out of their department, but they have a whole variety of additional wellness and learning and classes out of there, and I think that trend is expanding."

Click here to continue with Schools and School Districts.

© Copyright 2022 Recreation Management. All rights reserved.