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Business Officer Magazine

Sweat Equity

The payback on fitness-related facilities investments is value for students plus added vigor to recruitment and retention.

By Karla Hignite

According to a new study by APPA about how facilities in general affect student recruitment and retention (see sidebar, “High-Impact Facilities”), by far the facilities noted as “extremely or very important” in students’ selection process were those related to their major (73.6 percent), followed by libraries (53.6 percent), classrooms (49.8 percent), and residence halls (42.2 percent). Respondents ranked exercise facilities (35.6 percent) and student recreation facilities (32.3 percent) essentially the same as campus bookstores (34.6 percent) and above dining halls (28.6 percent) and student unions (21.3 percent).

While not the deciding factor, fitness-related facilities clearly place in the pro-and-con matrix students develop when comparing institutions. According to Gary Reynolds, coauthor of the APPA research project and director of facilities services at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, the survey findings reinforce what the leaders of his institution and others know anecdotally: Students want, expect, and look for fitness and recreation facilities when they visit a campus.

Fitness Frenzy

A national liberal arts institution with nearly 2,000 students, Colorado College is approaching the final stages of a long-range facilities development plan. A subset of this effort—a master plan focused on athletic and recreation facilities—entailed comparing structures against those at peer institutions and internal surveying of students, faculty, and staff to identify lacking or inadequate venues. “Something that clearly surfaced for varsity athletes and our general student population was an exercise and free-weight facility,” says Reynolds. “Currently our weight room is housed in a small basement area.”

While construction of a proposed health sport and fitness facility (to include related programming space) is pending, a likely scenario is $25 million to construct 75,000 square feet of new space and renovate existing facilities, says Thomas Nycum, vice president for business and finance. “To be a nationally ranked, world-class independent institution, we need the facilities to match. Health and sports facilities represent one area we’ve identified that we need to enhance.”

Hiram College in Ohio has also felt the squeeze for exercise space. The college is small in numbers—900 residential students and another 300 commuter weekend students. A needs assessment of students, faculty, and staff conducted in 1999 clearly illuminated a call for a sports recreation and fitness center. The $12.3 million center, which opened in October 2005, was the flagship project of the college’s recent $53.5 million capital campaign.

According to Tim Bryan, Hiram’s vice president for institutional advancement, student admission applications are up for the fall semester. Bryan doesn’t attribute the increase solely to the new center, but he believes it’s an undeniable factor. “For most institutions in our peer group, if they don’t already have a facility like this, they’re working to get one.” What’s interesting, Bryan notes, is that while returning Hiram students and faculty and staff are certainly wowed by the facility, prospective students don’t appear phased. “I think students today simply expect institutions to have this component on campus,” he says.

While smaller institutions may be on the forefront of adding fitness venues—in part because they may have lacked this multipurpose exercise space—student interest appears universal. Appalachian State University (ASU), Boone, North Carolina, opened a recreation facility for its 15,000 students in April 2006. The 125,000-square-foot intramural and sports fitness facility includes multiple courts and workout rooms, a walking track, a climbing wall, a 50-meter pool, a juice bar, and administrative offices. The building was fully funded by student fees that students approved, says Jane Helm, vice chancellor of business affairs. “Athletic facilities are obviously important to recruit teams, but intramurals serve a much broader base of our students,” she says. “Associated fields and facilities are definitely an important recruiting tool for us.”

Pumped Up Spending

According to the National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association, Corvallis, Oregon, institutions are making significant investments in exercise. A NIRSA survey conducted in December 2004 collected data from member institutions that recently undertook, were planning to undertake, or completed new construction, remodeling, or expansion of student recreational sports facilities between 2004 and 2010. From the financial data provided by 223 of the 333 participating institutions, a collective $3.17 billion was planned for new construction, additions, remodels, and expansions. That equals roughly $14.2 million on average per institution.

Based in part on NIRSA’s annual construction survey, Marketing Director Barry Brown suggests that the boom in fitness space construction—hot for the past decade—will likely keep pace for at least another 10 years. One obvious reason is the value that students place on fitness, says Brown. But while non-athlete students far outnumber competitive athletes, does their purported desire for such amenities justify the expense of building these cost-intensive structures? Yes, according to other NIRSA-sponsored research confirming facility usage.
The Value of Recreational Sports in Higher Education (Human Kinetics, 2004) reports findings of a national study commissioned by NIRSA based on interviews with 2,673 college students across 16 campuses. Seventy-five percent of respondents indicated that that they participate in campus recreational sports.

Plenty to Play

See Sally run—and kick and lift and climb. Today’s campus recreation options are far from mundane, with something to please the fitness palate of all participants. Whether students seek intramural or club sports, social study-break fun, or the chance to don their iPods and unleash mid-term stress on cardio machines, a good mix of fields, facilities, and equipment combine to encourage student exercise.

Longstanding outdoor education programs at some institutions provide the logical spin-off for leisure and recreation activities for the general student population. Appalachian State University taps its natural surroundings to offer kayaking, caving, and hiking.

The Rocky Mountains provide an obvious fit for alpine skiing as a club sport at Colorado College. And if kickball and dodgeball sound old school, they’re alive and well as intramurals here and at many other institutions, alongside ultimate Frisbee and water polo.

For a campus recreation program as big as the one at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln—with nearly 370,000-plus square feet of indoor space and 130 acres of outdoor fields and facilities—there’s room to offer some truly unique options: mud volleyball, for instance, or horseshoe doubles.

Ballroom dancing, flyfishing, and scuba pair leisure and learning; mind and body meet for karate, judo, and tae kwon do. And those who don’t like running or spinning in place can often find a wall or a ropes course to climb. Broomball anyone?

That finding bears out for UNL, where 81 percent of the university’s 17,000 undergraduate students participate in campus recreation programs. That clinches the second-highest satisfaction rating of all units surveyed, according to Stan Campbell, assistant vice chancellor of student affairs and director of campus recreation. Such a sizeable exercise enterprise requires careful scheduling of space to fit in more than 70 aerobics, yoga, and Pilates classes each week and to oversee the more than 500 student employees associated with UNL recreation.

Diving deeper into NIRSA’s findings, of the 75 percent who participate in campus recreation, about 25 percent are heavy users, engaging in fitness and recreational activities more than 25 times per month. Another 50 percent are self-identified moderate users, participating up to 25 times monthly. “While most high school athletes won’t continue their competitive sports careers when they head off to college, they are still interested in competing in intramural and club sports or remaining physically active,” Brown notes. The great news for all users is that campus exercise options abound (see sidebar, “Plenty to Play”).

Multiple Users and Uses

The variety of recreation and fitness activities can make it tough for institutions to choose specific features to include in their facilities. Hiram administrators based decisions in part on perceived lifecycle use and insights gained from site visits to similar institutions. Contemplating Ohio’s cold winter nights made the case for including an indoor track. But college leaders opted to forego a climbing wall. “No doubt they are a popular feature, but who knows for how long,” says Bryan.

“Our No. 1 focus was to build something that everyone would be comfortable using—including faculty and staff,” he continues. “We believe we’ve ended up with a facility that has something for everyone.” One outcome of that multiple-user priority was inclusion of two weight rooms. “The average person who wants to stay in shape can easily be intimidated lifting weights next to a 250-pound student athlete,” Bryan says. “Now individuals can choose the room that best suits them based on their personal exercise goals.”

If satisfying multiple user groups is one norm for fitness construction, another is incorporating adaptable space. “Multipurpose sums up a definite trend in campus fitness and recreation facilities,” says Lander Medlin, APPA’s executive vice president. In fact, it’s because of multiple user groups and an expanding menu of exercise options that flexible space is in high demand. Changeable space can accommodate everything from kickboxing and martial arts to yoga and fencing.

Hudson Valley Community College, Troy, New York, embodies the multipurpose, multiple user-group philosophy. HVCC’s McDonough Sports Complex includes an ice rink that is open to the public when not in use by the college’s hockey team and a triple gym that serves the competitive and intramural sports needs of the college’s 9,000 FTEs. During summers, the facility’s 34,500 square feet of exhibition space gets ample community use from area trade shows. “On average, about 200,000 people visit the campus for events including dog shows, garden shows, and high school and college basketball tournaments,” says Steve Cowan, physical plant director.

Four years ago HVCC’s campus became the site for a minor league stadium paid for by the state. The cost included moving and rebuilding the college’s softball, football, and intramural fields and tennis courts. From September 30 until June, the stadium is home field for HVCC and the local high school. Then from June through September the Houston Astros-affiliated team leases the space from the college for $95,000—about one-third of the $300,000 total annual costs required to operate and maintain the college’s fields and stadium, says Cowan.

Renewal costs must also be factored in for HVCC’s sports complex, now 25 years old. Wear and tear on this heavily used facility spell continual decisions about where to fund improvements, Cowan explains. That makes revenue generated from HVCC’s trade show business an important offset. “We take in about $600,000 annually from renting our complex,” he says. The college is in the midst of developing its next five-year master plan. “In recent years we’ve spent more on our playing fields. Now we need to catch up with spending on our structures and what goes inside them.” For Cowan, new bleachers and ice rink dasher boards come to mind as priority replacements. But such expenditures can be a hard sell internally if pitted against needed upgrades to your institution’s chemistry labs.

And unless your institution plays in the “big leagues,” improvements aren’t an automatic sell to outside donors either, adds ASU’s Jane Helm. Funding for planned upgrades to the university’s competitive sports facilities—which include a new field house, indoor practice football field, and soccer and softball fields—requires assessing a $75 fee on students to generate half of the $32 million needed, she says. The rest is targeted for funding through an upcoming capital campaign. Nine years ago ASU did receive state funding for a convocation center that houses the basketball arena. But that was a rare exception based on the fact that the center includes academic department space and is available for community use. “We were successful with getting a sizeable bond issue passed in the state in 2000 that allowed us to get some of our academic buildings up to par, but during that same time we did minimal work on our athletic facilities, which we haven’t been able to keep in line with the rest of the campus because of limited resources,” Helm admits.

Physical Plant Fitness

Maintaining any campus structure can be costly. But can all buildings be deemed equal when it comes to renewal and replacement concerns? “What often happens is that priorities for sports-related facilities are lumped into the same dollars as all other capital renewal,” says Gary Reynolds at Colorado College. Fitness and recreation center improvements may not cost as much as science and engineering building upkeep, but they’re likely more expensive than classroom and office space, says Reynolds. He questions whether institutions would do well to consider a higher-than-normal recapitalization rate for athletic and recreation facilities—perhaps as much as 2 percent. “Not many campuses are managed this way, but it’s worth considering since many athletic facilities take a much harder beating than most buildings.”

At Colorado College, all facilities are funded and maintained out of the institution’s Education and General budget and are assessed at the same recapitalization rate. But the college is working toward upping its overall rate. According to Thomas Nycum, the college sets the average expected life of each structure at 75 years and is trying to build a renewal and replacement fund that equates to 1.5 percent of the current replacement value. “Currently we’re at 1.1 percent and heading toward our goal,” says Nycum.

High-Impact Facilities

A new study conducted by APPA’s Center for Facilities Research explores in part the role of an institution’s physical assets in helping to recruit and retain students. In total, 16,153 students participated from 46 institutions across the United States and Canada.

Among the findings: Campus residential facilities (53.1 percent) played a close second to those related to students’ majors (56.8 percent) when respondents were asked which facilities were important to see during a campus visit. One third (32.9 percent) said it was important to see an institution’s recreation facilities. In addition to what attracts students, the survey also revealed that some respondents rejected an institution because it lacked a facility (29.3 percent) or had an inadequate (26.1 percent) or poorly maintained (16.6 percent) facility that the student felt was important.

An executive summary of “The Impact of Facilities on Recruitment and Retention of Students” is available in two parts from the March/April and May/June 2006 issues of Facilities Manager (

One major improvement the college did make last spring was replacing its grass football field with artificial turf. The immediate impact of that nearly $1 million improvement was the ability to boost usage and provide adequate practice time for football, soccer, and lacrosse teams as well as intramural play. “When you look at lifecycle costs, installing this type of field still carries hefty replacement costs every 10 to 12 years,” Nycum points out. In the final cost-benefit analysis of caring for grass versus raising funds each decade to replace a synthetic turf, an institution can end up spending about the same amount, he says. “What we do gain is a much more versatile field that can accommodate the growth in students’ recreational needs.”

Value Added

One benefit that should not be overlooked is the value that fitness and recreation space can add to the overall campus culture mix, says Lisa Thibodeau, Hiram’s vice president for business and finance. “Our new center definitely fills a social component and places a strong focus on health.” To coincide with the college’s capital campaign to fund construction, Hiram’s athletic department staff launched a wellness campaign to rally the entire campus community to think more about their physical health, says Thibodeau. Plans are under way to expand an initial series of events that organized walking clubs and offered healthy cooking classes.

APPA’s Medlin notes that the same neighborhood concept applied to more recent designs of student unions and residence halls is likewise being incorporated in today’s fitness and recreation facilities. “Institutions are doing more to provide flexible spaces to meet the evolving demands of students and create a sense of community that draws people in and that encourages learning campuswide.”

According to The Value of Recreational Sports, the benefits of an institution’s focus on physical health and fitness extend well beyond ability to recruit and retain students. Participation in recreational sports contributes to student success, helping to build leadership skills and self-esteem, says Kent Blumenthal, NIRSA executive director. “There is no doubt that intentionally designed and programmed campus recreational sports facilities and activities also enhance the quality of learning and the student experience.” Among the resources Blumenthal points to that argue for “whole student” education is Learning Reconsidered, published by the American College Personnel Association and the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators. NIRSA joined ACPA, NASPA, and four other student affairs-related higher education organizations to release a sequel this year that offers a blueprint for leveraging higher education resources toward holistic, experiential learning.

Getting Fit?
Has your institution made an investment in sports and recreation facilities? E-mail to share details.

While students understandably place top billing on colleges and universities with strong academic programs and first-rate facilities for their area of study, most students won’t spend their entire day—or every wee hour of the night—cracking the books. The old adage is true: All work and no play is no fun. Investments in exercise options may not provide the tipping point in favor of a student selecting your institution, but it could ensure that you remain a top contender.

KARLA HIGNITE, principal of KH Communication, Tacoma, Washington, is senior editor of Business Officer.