Fit and Healthy on Campus

A Look at Trends in Recreation at Colleges & Universities

Many colleges and universities have gotten on a bandwagon of constructing ever-bigger and more complex recreation centers as a way to attract more students to their campuses. Others rely on older facilities, but most schools place at least some emphasis on fitness and wellness activities for their students.

Respondents from colleges and universities represented the second-largest segment of the survey, at 13.5 percent. The majority of these—57 percent—represented public institutions, while another 30 percent said they worked for private, nonprofit schools.

The respondents from colleges and universities were about evenly spread between different types of communities, with a bit more than a third coming from urban (33.8 percent) and rural (33.5 percent) communities, and a bit less than a third reporting in from suburban locations (32.7 percent).

Likewise, the respondents were well distributed throughout the United States. As with the general survey respondents, more reported in from the Midwest—29.6 percent—than any other region. This was followed by the Northeast at 20.2 percent, the South Central states at 18 percent, the South Atlantic states at 17.6 percent, and the Western states at 13.5 percent. Another 1.1 percent of respondents from colleges and universities said they worked for schools outside the United States.

Respondents from university and college facilities indicated that they were less likely than others to partner with external organizations. Nearly a quarter (24.3 percent) said they did not partner with any other organizations, compared to 15 percent of all respondents. When they did choose to form partnerships, they were most likely to team up with other colleges and universities. Nearly 46 percent indicated that their facilities had formed such partnerships. The second most likely partner for colleges and universities was local schools. Around a third (33 percent) indicated they had formed a partnership with local schools. Nearly a quarter (24.8 percent) also indicated that they had partnered with nonprofit organizations. The least likely partners for colleges and universities were private health clubs. Only 1.5 percent indicated that they had partnered with a private health club. Interestingly, 12.2 percent had partnered with a YMCA, YWCA or JCC, perhaps as a way to allow students to gain access to greater fitness and recreational programming.

Sustainable Campus

When colleges and universities choose to build new facilities, there is a growing trend toward building as green as possible, and toward creating wide-open spaces.

Stephen Springs, a partner with Dallas-based architecture firm Brinkley Sargent Architects, said more recreation facilities of all kinds are introducing more natural light through large windows and open spacing, and said that often, the recreation facilities that use such designs are award-winning facilities. They do not "overcompartmentalize," but use free flow and accessibility of space.

"A lot of facilities want people to see what's going on inside from the outside," Springs said. "The facility acts as its own billboard when people are passing by." This trend is evident on many college campuses.

The American Council on Education (ACE) has launched a Web site, "Solutions for Our Future," which emphasizes the greening of America's college campuses.

"Solutions has sparked a national conversation about the broad-based public benefits of higher education and the importance to our country's future of a sustained investment in our colleges and universities," said ACE President David Ward in a press release announcing the initiative. "The efforts of our institutions in the area of sustainability will further highlight the contributions our students, faculty and staff are making every day in addressing some of the most daunting challenges facing our world."

While the site focuses on entire campuses and their sustainable initiatives, this trend is trickling into campus recreation facilities. Recently opened facilities like the renovated recreation center at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., the University of Maine's new Student Recreation and Fitness Center, the Western Washington University's Wade King Student Recreation Center and California State University at Fullerton's new recreation center have all aimed for LEED certification to verify their sustainability.

Designed to achieve LEED certification, the College of William and Mary's renovated and expanded Recreation Center included a 40,000-square-foot expansion and a renovation of 55,000 square feet. The facility now includes more than 10,000 square feet of cardio and weight space, a two-story rock-climbing wall, a juice bar, new exercise rooms and a new multipurpose court.

Cal State Fullerton's Student Recreation Center won "Best Overall Sustainable Design" as part of the 2007 Best Practice Awards for the University of California/California State University Energy Efficiency Partnership Program through more efficient use of energy and water, low-emitting materials, a construction waste management plans and other initiatives.

The new two-story, 95,000-square-foot center features a rock wall, a 22,000-square-foot multicourt gym, a 15,000-square-foot cardio and weight room, an outdoor leisure and lap pool, a multimedia cardio room, an indoor track and more.

"The students who spearheaded the center's funding and the campus Design and Construction Office staff always intended for the Student Recreation Center to be environmentally sensitive," said Kurt Borsting, director of the Titan Student Union in a press release. "Our goal is to provide a great, new campus facility that uses resources wisely."


Staffing issues were considered a major concern by more than a quarter (25.9 percent) of respondents from colleges and universities. One manager of campus recreation from a Pennsylvania college said, "If we continue to grow, we will need to increase our staff, and we don't know if we will have the resources to do so."

Staffing is also a concern among schools because of the high rate of built-in turnover among workers at college recreation facilities. Luckily, many have excellent training programs in place and are well-adapted to dealing with this natural turnover that occurs as students graduate and as new freshmen enter the school.

College and university respondents indicated that their facilities employed far fewer people than respondents from other categories, and they also were expecting a much smaller increase in the number of people they employ over the next few years. Respondents projected a 14.3 percent increase from 95.7 employees on average currently to around 109.4 on average in 2011.

This is driven largely by growth in the number of volunteers these facilities rely on, at 35.9 percent. They also are expecting a 19.1 percent jump in the number of part-time employees. On the other hand, college and university facilities were anticipating a drop of 3.9 percent in the average number of full-time workers they employed, and a near 10 percent drop in the number of seasonal employees.

A vast majority (93.8 percent) of respondents from colleges and universities indicated that they currently require certification of some kind for their employees. In the future, a full 95.8 percent indicated that they plan to require certification.

The most common certification required, by far, was CPR, AED or First Aid certification, More than 90 percent of colleges and universities required some of their employees to earn one of these critical life-saving certifications. This was followed by lifeguarding certifications, required by 65.4 percent of respondents' facilities. More than a third also indicated that they required a personal training or fitness-related certification, a background check or an aquatic management or pool operations certification.

Participation & Budgets

The National Center for Education Statistics projects growth of about 4.9 percent in the total fall enrollment in degree-granting institutions between 2007 and 2010, and growth of 13.8 percent between 2007 and 2016. However, respondents to this year's survey were more likely to predict a steady number of users at their facility through 2009, and many cited concerns about the number of students attending their facilities.

One supervisor of grounds from a Pennsylvania college said enrollment numbers were a top concern, "particularly with the way the economy is going." He added, "We hope to keep our enrollment numbers up."

A dean and athletic director from a Tennessee college said, "We can only meet budgetary requirements if we meet enrollment needs."

Enrollment in schools overall obviously impacts the number of students, faculty and others using the school's recreation facilities. While 43.7 percent of college and university respondents said they had seen an increase from 2006 to 2007, another 51.6 percent said they had seen no change in the number of people using their facilities in that time frame. From 2007 to 2008, 55.6 percent said they expected no change in the number of people using their facilities, and from 2008 to 2009, nearly 58 percent said they expected no change. Just over 40 percent expected to see an increase in that period.

Just over 62 percent of respondents from colleges and universities indicated that they charge a usage or membership fee for their facilities. For many schools, the fee for usage of recreation facilities is built into the student's annual tuition and fees. For others, a separate fee is required, particularly for extras like equipment and locker rental.

Far fewer college and university respondents were expecting to see any increase in their revenues over the next few years than the average respondent, and they also were less likely to have seen an increase from 2006 to 2007. In that year, 38.7 percent of all respondents said their revenue had increased, while less than a quarter (21.7 percent) of college and university respondents' revenue had increased. More than three-quarters (76 percent) indicated that their revenues had remained flat between 2006 and 2007. For the next two years, just over two-thirds (69.6 percent for 2007 to 2008, and 68.9 percent for 2008 to 2009) of college and university respondents expect their revenues to remain the same, compared to just over half of all respondents for the same time period.

At the same time, colleges and universities were projecting a slightly higher-than-average growth in their operating costs. Respondents projected a growth rate of 15.3 percent from $1,232,100 in fiscal 2007 to $1,421,000 in fiscal 2009. And indeed, budgets are a top concern for the majority of respondents in this category.

Another respondent from an Arkansas university said the budget was a challenge because it was not increasing as the facilities expanded. And a manager of a facility at a university in Alaska said the budget troubles at his school meant the facility would have to become self-sustaining. Lack of state funding was cited by respondents in many locations throughout the country as a major setback.

With the economy still struggling to make its way out of the doldrums, the news is not likely to get any better for these respondents for some time.

Getting on the Map

For many colleges and universities, adding beautiful new recreation facilities—or performing significant renovations and upgrades to their existing facilities—offers an opportunity to get in front of more potential students. That said, while college and university respondents indicated that they were planning to spend more than other respondents on their new facilities, additions and renovations, they were less likely to be planning such construction.

Just 62.6 percent of respondents from colleges and universities indicated that they had plans for new construction, additions or renovations over the next few years. Just over a quarter (26 percent) plan to build new, while 37 percent plan to renovate their existing facilities, and 28.6 percent plan to make additions. (See Figure 47.)

More than half of respondents from colleges and universities said they were concerned about facility and equipment maintenance, and many respondents independently cited overcrowding of their space and equipment.

One director of recreational sports and fitness at an Alabama university said "increased usage" was creating challenges for the facility's space.

An athletic director at a technical college in Wisconsin said, "We are constrained by our facility in terms of space—and the multitude of programs that we are engaged in. We would like to renovate and expand in the future."

Others simply cited the age of their facilities and equipment as the problem. One director of campus recreation and facilities in Ohio said, "Equipment maintenance and purchasing would probably be my greatest concern right now because our fitness center and the equipment is five years old, and things are breaking down."

The top amenities currently included at college and university recreation facilities include locker rooms, fitness centers, indoor sports courts and gymnasiums, classrooms and meeting rooms, bleachers and seating, and exercise studio rooms. More than half also include natural turf sports fields and indoor aquatic facilities.

As they make renovations and additions and build new facilities, colleges and universities also look to meet the needs of their students, faculty and staff by increasing their programming capabilities with additional amenities. The top 10 amenities college and university respondents said they were planning to add over the next three years include:

  1. Bleachers & Seating
  2. Synthetic Turf Sports Fields
  3. Fitness Center
  4. Classrooms/Meeting Rooms
  5. Climbing Walls
  6. Concession Areas
  7. Exercise Studio Rooms
  8. Indoor Sports Courts
  9. Challenge Courses
  10. Natural Turf Sports Fields

An Emphasis on Wellness
Fitness & Wellness Represent Top 3 Planned Programs at Colleges & Universities

Programs focused on personal fitness and wellness were among the top three programs planned for addition at college and university facilities over the next three years.

Personal training, currently provided by 51.9 percent of respondents' facilities, was the top planned program. More than 14 percent of respondents indicated that their facilities plan to add personal training as a program option for students and faculty using their facilities.

While nutrition and diet counseling are currently only offered by 35.9 percent of facilities, this type of program was the second most commonly planned addition. More than 12 percent of college and university respondents indicated that they planned to add nutrition and diet counseling programs to their offerings.

Finally, fitness programs, currently provided by more than three-quarters (75.2 percent) of respondents, are the third most commonly planned program addition. More than 12 percent of college and university respondents said they plan to add fitness programs to their lineup.

In a 2007 article for Preventing Chronic Disease, a publication of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), author Phillip B. Sparling, Ed.D., explained that while campus services have long been established to manage "the perennial coming-of-age issues associated with substance abuse and sexual behavior," these issues often overshadow "the need to emphasize the mundane but important habits of eating healthfully and exercising regularly."

He cites findings from a national survey conducted in 2005 that indicated that three out of 10 college students are either overweight or obese, nine of 10 students eat less than five servings of fruits and vegetables per day, and six in 10 participate in less than three days per week of vigorous intensity or moderate intensity activity.

"Although excess weight, poor nutrition and insufficient physical activity are not emergencies that require immediate action, their urgency should not be underestimated," he writes.

Tackling obesity on campus represents a unique opportunity to reach students, he added, because they are "open to change and challenge as they reexamine their lifestyle choices."

It's an ideal time to encourage students to improve their eating and exercise habits.

"At the same time," Sparling writes, "we have the capacity to provide a supportive environment by providing and promoting good food choices and multiple options for physical activity, including pedestrian-friendly campuses."

Surely the participants in this year's study who are planning to add wellness programs are at the forefront of the battle against campus obesity, and they will be well-positioned to address future generations of students with fitness and wellness options that can last a lifetime.

Program Plans

Among college and university facilities, fitness programs were the most commonly available offering, with more than three-quarters (75.2 percent) of respondents indicating that their facilities offered such programs. More than half said they also encouraged students and other participants to engage in programs such as sports tournaments and races, educational programs, mind-body balance programs like yoga and tai chi, individual sports activities like running and lap swimming, personal training and aquatic exercise programs.

There is a great emphasis in college and university facilities on increasing students' health and wellness, and this reflects a growing concern among many facility directors that their patrons will fall victim to the growing obesity epidemic.

One business manager for an Illinois university said her top concern was that upcoming generations entering the school would have a "decreased interest in physical exercise."

An aquatic and campus wellness director from a Nebraska college said "increasing health and awareness on campus" was her top concern due to the rising "student obesity rate."

With these concerns forming a foundation for program development over the next several years, it is not surprising that the top three program additions planned by college and university respondents were personal training, nutrition and diet counseling and fitness.

The top 10 programs college and university respondents were planning to add included:

  1. Personal training
  2. Nutrition and diet counseling
  3. Fitness programs
  4. Day camps and summer camps
  5. Educational programs
  6. Mind-body balance programs
  7. Sport training, such as golf lessons or tennis lessons
  8. Individual sports activities like running clubs and lap swimming
  9. Sports tournaments and races
  10. Aquatic exercise programs
  11. Climbing programs

© Copyright 2020 Recreation Management. All rights reserved.