Universities super-size rec centers to recruit, retain students

Universities are pouring money into elaborate recreation centers where students socialize as much as they exercise. And this has meant big business for fitness manufacturers and climbing wall companies.
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On Aug. 2, the University of Iowa in Iowa City opened a $70 million fitness center, which covers 150,000 square feet and includes cardio and strength machines on two separate floors, a 52-foot climbing wall, large lounge areas, plus a wellness center and smoothie café. 

The university’s Campus Rec. & Wellness Center is the latest example of how universities are pouring money into huge rec centers, creating facilities where students not only work up a sweat, but also relax and socialize.

For fitness manufacturers and climbing wall companies, universities have become increasingly important customers, as universities up their spending on rec centers to attract prospective students and also retain students by helping them be more healthy and engaged in campus life. 

“It’s huge business for us. It’s one of our biggest sectors,” said Adam Koberna, vice president of marketing and sales for climbing wall manufacturer Entre Prises (www.epusa.com).

Rec spending outpaces instruction dollars

While universities are primarily known as institutions of higher learning, their spending on recreation services now outpaces spending on instruction, according to a recent study.

“At public research universities, spending for student services rose 20 percent over the decade, compared with 10 percent for instruction,” the New York Times reported in July, citing “Trends in College Spending 1998-2008” by the Delta Cost Project, a non-profit group in Washington that scrutinizes college costs.

“This is the country-clubization of the American university,” Richard K. Vedder, a professor at Ohio University who studies the economics of higher education, told the Times. “A lot of it is for great athletic centers and spectacular student union buildings. In the zeal to get students, they are going after them on the basis of recreational amenities.”

Koberna of Entre Prises said he noticed that universities began to spend more on climbing walls around 2003 when Entre Prises installed a large wall at Oregon State University. “That’s when the dollars started going up, and architects started coming to us with massive projects,” said Koberna, noting that schools spend anywhere from $50,000 to half a million dollars on new walls. “It’s competitive. When one school does it, the next school wants to do it bigger. They’re looking for a recruiting tool and icons for their school.”

Koberna said the rec center arms race isn’t slowing down, and Oregon State just asked Entre Prises to build an additional 4,300-square-foot wall for a new facility.

Fitness equipment manufacturer Technogym has seen its business with universities increase four-fold over the past four years, said Jim Chasteen, a business director for the company (www.technogym.com). He said individual schools have outfitted their fitness centers with as much as $400,000 to $500,000 worth of Technogym equipment. Chasteen said universities are important customers not just because of the volume of equipment they buy, but also because their machines require a high level of service and maintenance. He explained that university rec centers are open more days and longer hours than most facilities, and young people tend to put more stress on machines -- for example, students run on treadmills more than they walk on them.

“The only place that probably puts more wear and tear on equipment is a Navy ship full of Marines that have little to do 24 hours a day except workout while deployed,” said Chasteen. “And I can say that as a former Marine.”

For Technogym and a host of other fitness companies, the university sector of their business will likely continue to grow because schools see rec centers as important tools to grow and maintain their student population. 

The University of New Mexico in Albuquerque hopes to overhaul its 52-year-old, 330,000-square-foot rec center as a way to recruit and retain more students. “In this day and age, a rec center has become important for retention and attracting students,” said Roger Wrolstad, director of recreation services for the University of New Mexico. “It’s proven that the more active students are in campus life, the better their chances of graduating.”

The University of Iowa also constructed its new facility to draw more students and keep them enrolled. “We believe that if you have a strong campus recreation program that will enhance the retention of students in the university,” said Harry Ostrander, the University of Iowa’s director of recreation services. “Where students get a comfort level and a niche with other students that they feel comfortable with, they’re more likely to stay in school.”

A hub of activity

One modern development with rec centers is that they put a wide range of services under one roof, including wellness centers that offer classes on nutrition and how to stop smoking. Ostrander said that eight departments at the University of Iowa used to offer wellness programs in various buildings, but it’s much more efficient to house them in one place. “Before, nobody knew what facility to go to,” he said. “It was very confusing for the students.”

In addition to wellness centers, universities are also creating more ways for students to just relax, gather with friends and meet people. The University of Iowa not only built traditional competition swimming pools, but it also constructed a “lazy river” pool where students can simply float and relieve stress. Ostrander said the pool and other areas of the rec center would also be used for nighttime social activities. “We wanted to provide our students a late-night alternative to the binge drinking and underage drinking occurring on campus,” he said.

Koberna of Entre Prises said rec centers are including bigger and better climbing walls partly because they serve as a place for students to spend time with each other. “Climbing has become a lot more social, and it’s not extreme anymore,” said Koberna.

Cost concerns

While plenty of universities are breaking ground on massive rec centers -- the University of Minnesota has a $59 million overhaul of its center planned -- some schools can’t keep pace. Many of the new centers are actually funded by student fees, and some kids just don’t want to dish out more money as tuition rates soar.

The University of New Mexico has put on hold plans to renovate its rec facility due to the recession and its squeeze on spending. “The price tag was around $50 million and would be paid off by student fees,” said Wrolstad, adding that fees would have jumped from being “virtually nothing” to about $150. “The fee level was going to be something more than the administration and students were ready to swallow at this particular point.”

Nevertheless, students at many other schools are willing to pony up the money. The University of Iowa also funds its rec center through student fees, which increased from $6 to $125 annually, according to Ostrander. But he said students didn’t mind the price hike. “We did a lot of survey and focus groups,” he said. “We gave them the option of three different funding levels, and they overwhelmingly supported the most expensive level.”

He said the students simply placed a high premium on having a quality place to not only exercise, but also gather to socialize.

Wrolstad said the University of New Mexico also recognizes the value of having such a facility. In fact, he said a new rec center is a central element in a greater plan to expand the campus and house more students so that it will be less of a commuter school. When the economy improves, said Wrolstad, construction on a rec center would go forward. “It’s almost a hinge piece to increase campus life,” he said. “And nothing increases it better than having a rec center.”

--Marcus Woolf

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