Image credit: John T. Consoli/University of Maryland

With cost of college rising,
recreation programs at risk


With internships, part-time jobs and demanding class loads, it can be difficult for students to juggle the responsibilities of college life with a healthy and active lifestyle.

There is limited amount of time for social and recreational activities as students strive to graduate in as close to four years as possible with the most competitive resume.

It may seem like that Zumba class or Ultimate Frisbee practice is a good candidate to get cut when a student is trying to lighten their load or say, when a university is trying to lower the cost of being a student.

However, collegiate recreation programs across the country encourage students and stakeholders to reconsider.

Given the financial and political landscape of higher education, recreation programs at colleges and universities face a public relations challenge - battle the perception that recreation is a luxury that does not directly contribute to academic success while keeping pace with aspirational peers in an effort to attract the best and brightest.


As the cost of college continues to rise faster than the rate of inflation, parents, students, taxpayers, politicians and others are looking closely at the costs of higher education.

The Maryland Adventure Complex behind
Eppley Recreation Center features a
50-foot climbing wall.
Image credit: Kate Maloney

With widespread concern over the affordability of a college education and student debt, it’s easy to see recreation facilities on a college campus as a high-end amenity.

“Resources are tight and people often don’t prioritize exercise over other things that seem more necessary as part of a college education,” said Bre Rowh, Assistant Director of Fitness Programs at the University of Maryland.

Take the Eppley Recreation Center operated by Campus Recreation Services (CRS) at the University of Maryland for example – a state-of-the-art facility with 258,000 square feet of space and a $39.5 million price tag.

It features an outdoor pool, 50-foot alpine rock climbing wall, bouldering grotto, high ropes course, multiple indoor pools, sauna, and steam room on top of more typical gym offerings. And the Eppley Recreation Center is just one of the four indoor facilities operated by CRS in addition to 21.5 acres of outdoor recreation space.

Rowh admits that recreational facilities and equipment are expensive, but she says, “from my perspective, exercise is a foundational piece of healthy living.”

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Facilities like Eppley Recreation Center may seem extravagant, but this kind of facility is increasingly expected among prospective college students.

In fact, nearly half (46 percent) of first-year students indicated that recreational facilities were very or moderately important in their college decision as reported by the 2010 NIRSA/NASPA Consortium Campus Recreation Impact Study.

That same study also reported that the No. 2 factor impeding student use of on-campus recreation is crowded facilities, trailing closely behind lack of time.

Barbara Ailken, Associate Director
Campus Recreation Services
Image credit: Alison Whitty/CRS

At the University of Maryland, administrators report that the demand for recreation space and services exceeds supply.

Long waitlists for intramural sport teams are the norm, emerging sport clubs are turned away due to lack of available practice time, the group fitness schedule is maxed out, and the weight rooms and fitness center are often at capacity during peak hours.

Yet, major expansion or upgrades anytime soon are unlikely.

“The cost to build, equip, staff, and maintain recreation facilities is high and not likely to be easily funded by increasing student fees in the future,” said Barbara Aiken, Associate Director for Programs at CRS. “That leaves us competing with two big campus entities – academics and ICA [intercollegiate athletics] – for fewer state, student fee, and development dollars when our costs of operation are rising.”


A department within the Division of Student Affairs, CRS is funded largely by mandatory student fees.

In addition to the cost of tuition, textbooks, housing and a meal plan, full-time students are assessed a $885.91 fee per semester – the second largest chunk of that being allocated to CRS, second only to Athletics and ahead of both the Student Union fee and Technology fee.

Student Fee Breakdown per term, 2013-2014

Maryland’s move to the Big Ten Conference effective with the 2014-2015 academic year could mean CRS will be competing with athletics for more than money in the near future, but for space as well. “The president [Dr. Wallace Loh] will want to support this decision by supporting ICA’s need for resources that allow UMD teams to be competitive in this conference, especially facility space. Our fields and indoor facilities could become targets,” says Aiken.


Advocating for themselves to secure the resources they need, recreation programs are touting the benefits of exercise for students.

“Exercise is medicine,” says Rowh. “It’s your first line of defense in helping to prevent anything that might go wrong with your body. It also helps you sleep better. It helps you focus. It produces endorphins that give you a more positive outlook on life which motivates you to pursue the things that matter most to you.”

Aiken also believes rereation offers many benefits, "Choosing to engage in campus recreation contributes to physical, social, and mental well-being and thereby improves the student’s quality of life. The student experience is enhanced by the opportunity for learning to value regular activity and how to build it into a busy schedule or life."

Shannon McHale, a senior at the University of Maryland, says making physical activity a priority has helped her succeed in and out of the classroom.

“It's so much easier to sit down and return to my work after taking a short break to do something active. I'm less fidgety and more focused afterwards. I also am more confident in myself and my body, which has helped me make friends and speak up more in both social and academic settings.”


In addition to informal recreational opportunities, CRS provides student development, leadership and team building experiences through student employment, adventure trips, and student-run sport club organizations, among other activities.

While students can be active with or without an university recreation program, McHale says CRS offers added value.

"CRS is more than just a gym. It has played an immeasurable role in my student experience. Campus recreation activities are probably the number one thing I will remember about college."

Aiken believes harnessing the testimonies of students like Shannon’s will be key for CRS to thrive in the coming years.

“Our challenge is to insure that campus recreation is viewed as relevant – that access to recreational facilities and programs is necessary for students to succeed academically and personally. Campus recreation has not traditionally been viewed this way, nor have we been intentional about public relations.”