A recreation arms race now underway at some schools

Water works and recruitment tactics

In an effort to boost enrollment, universities and colleges are building student athletic centers that channel water parks.

Auburn University has a 45-person paw-print shaped hot tub, Pensacola Christian College has a $1 million wave rider, Missouri State University has a zip-line over the pool and a lazy river. Ten schools have AquaClimb pool-side rock walls, 35 more are in the works. 

According to a 2013 NIRSA study, 92 schools reported a combined $1.7 billion in capital projects.

"Aquatics are a huge growth area," says Jack Patton, leader of RDG Planning and Design's sports facilities group. They are also the most expensive part of a recreation center to run per square foot.

Financing student facilities

Officials hope that the amenities will help them stand out in prospective students' minds.

It works. Resort-style facilities boost student enrollment, particularly at less-elite schools, according to a 2013 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research.

At the University of Missouri, each tour stops by the "indoor beach club's" palm trees, lazy river, waterfall, and grotto modeled after the Playboy Mansion's.

But not all institutions push for water park-level leisure pools. In an effort to stem its party-school image, Arizona State University rejected even lounge chairs to discourage people from sunbathing.

The spotlight on aquatics comes as universities rebrand student recreation centers as social spaces where students can hang out, instead of just fitness-focused areas.

Studies at Michigan State University and Purdue University show students who work out at campus gyms may strengthen their academics as well (Rubin, New York Times, 9/19).


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