The position of college rec director is evolving parallel with the state-of-the-art rec centers being erected across the country. Whether formally as part of their job description, or by default because of their context within the campus community, rec directors today are being tasked with everything from recruiting and retention to risk prevention and wellbeing.
Total number of high school graduates in the U.S. in 2026
Projected number of high school graduates in the U.S. by the early 2030s
Percentage of all high school graduates who were white in 2000
Projected percentage of white high school graduates by the early 2030s
At NIRSA's inaugural Director's Institute, held this June at the Loews Ventana Canyon Resort in the foothills of the Catalina Mountains in Tucson, Ariz., college rec directors from across North America came together to discuss the future of not only college rec but higher education in general. The discourse at the event revealed numerous opportunities and challenges, as institutions adjust to the needs of an ever-changing student body, while also aiming to stay cost effective.
High school grad rates decline
Students are academia's raison d'être. Along with donor monies, it is tuition and fees that keep the campus economy afloat. It shouldn't surprise that any projected decrease in the pool of incoming freshmen raises alarm bells at the highest levels, a message NIRSA executive director Pam Watts highlighted with her opening remarks at this year's Institute. "Recessions tend to have a big impact on birth rates," Watts says. "That means we can expect a dramatic decline in high school graduation rates right around the 2025 to 2030 mark."
Watts was presenting research from the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, which projects that the United States is headed into a period of changing demographics in terms of high school graduates. This period is projected to be unique in terms of its sharp rise and decline, all within an approximate 10-year window. Specifically, the data suggest that after 15 years of steady increase, the number of high school graduates is expected to peak at around 3.56 million in 2026, but then sharply decline by about 8 percent (to about 3.25 million) through the early 2030s. Those kinds of rapidly falling numbers could mean a big dent in revenues for colleges and universities across the country.
The decline in white high school graduates — which are expected to decrease in number by 17 percent by 2030 — also represents an overall demographic shift. White graduates accounted for 70 percent of all high school graduates in 2000 but are projected to account for just 52 percent of high school graduates by the early 2030s. While the graduation rates of other races are projected to increase during this time — particularly Hispanic graduates, where an increase of almost 5 percent is projected by 2025 — those gains will largely also see significant decline by the early 2030s.
Socioeconomic inequality in the United States will also have an impact on the changing demographics of incoming college students. The next waves of high school graduates will include increasing numbers of kids from families with incomes below the national average, as black and Hispanic families are shown to have incomes lower than the overall median family income — and much lower than white or Asian families.
The decline in projected high school graduates also isn't uniform nationwide. Some regions of the country anticipate an increase in high school graduation rates, while other regions have plateaued or are already in decline. Watts says the profession, even in those areas of the country that are growing, needs to be ready for the decline. "We need to manage growth in the next five to seven years in a way that can be responsibly contracted when the number of students attending college declines."
A new kind of student
Aside from a decline in the number of students graduating high school and a dramatic shift in the demographics of that population, colleges and universities are considering ways to meet the needs and demands of a new generation of students who have grown up during the age of the internet.
Patty Perillo, vice president for student affairs at Virginia Tech, noted the challenges and opportunities of working with students who come from an environment that is in many ways radically different than what previous generations lived through. "This generation is different, and while they might not engage in the ways that we're used to, they're wonderful in their own right and they're trying to make a difference," she says. "They've grown up in a world that's pretty darn scary for them in some ways. They've seen things that none of us had to see developmentally, often between the ages of one and 18 — so it's a different framework, a different perspective."
Those differences are necessitating a rethinking of the overall product being offered by institutions of higher learning, placing less emphasis on specific content and more emphasis on how to adapt quickly to the outside world. "When we look at what people will need to be successful, it's not necessarily what they need to know but rather how they'll be able to synthesize and collect information," says Allison Vaillancourt, vice president of student affairs, business affairs, and human resources at the University of Arizona. "So, it's not so much about cramming in four years of knowledge that will be obsolete quite shortly."
Perillo goes a step further, noting that such fundamental differences in what students want means providing additional academic choices. "This next generation of students really wants personalized studies," she said. "One of the things we're doing at Virginia Tech is beginning to create academic programs so that students can really chart their own course and study the kinds of things that they're really interested in."
Not surprisingly, rec directors and the facilities and programming they oversee will be at the heart of the changes coming to college campuses, as universities increasingly elevate holistic wellbeing on par with academic rigor. For instance, tracking ID swipes around campus and correlating that information with academic success has consistently shown that greater numbers of students regularly visiting their campus rec center lead to significantly higher retention rates.
Todd Misener, chief wellness officer at Oklahoma State University, discussed the need for rec directors to understand and use the plentiful data at their disposal, especially as budgets shrink. Misener said that rec directors need to tell a story that is backed by hard data, noting that it's not enough to provide administrators with anecdotal accounts about how much visitors enjoy their facilities and programming. "Unless you have data, you're just another person with an opinion," he says.
Referencing Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Misener says he's frustrated that many initiatives to act are prompted by tragedy. "It shouldn't take a death for us to act when we already have the kinds of data we have at our disposal," he says. "We are in a very reactionary system typically, so it's on us to get ahead of the reactionary curve, with real tangible data that can speak to the value systems of your campuses. This whole notion that we can keep doing the same thing over and over again is finished. We have to constantly raise the bar."
Perhaps the most important takeaway from the event was also the most obvious, which is that college students come to their education destination in need of more than just academic instruction. They are still growing and maturing and need an environment that will nurture everything from social skills to sound eating habits, which is why college rec is so important to campus life. "These students think they're more connected because they're on their devices all the time, but they're not," Perillo says. "We're wired for connection, but they don't have the social skills. They don't know how to do it. We need to help them. It's irrefutable that when students are well, they are successful."
This article originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Rec directors see opportunity as student demographics change." Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.