With all the buzz surrounding the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing this summer, it's no surprise that the theme of the 2019 new-student orientation at Robert Morris University, located in Moon Township, Pa., was "Moon Landing." As it has for years, the recreation staff played a big role in the event designed to acquaint incoming students with the campus, help them learn about new initiatives and introduce them to each other.
Average cumulative GPA of University of Arkansas freshmen who use campus rec facilities 60 or more times per year
Average cumulative GPA of Arkansas freshmen who don't use campus rec facilities
Freshman-to-sophomore-year retention rate for Arkansas freshmen who use campus rec facilities
Retention rate for Arkansas freshmen who don't use campus rec facilities
"From the moment students get here, we engage with them," says Armand Buzzelli, director of campus recreation at Robert Morris University. "Both our student staff and our professional staff help with moving students into their dorm rooms, and we also host an open house that week at the rec center. We understand how important that sense of identity and belonging is for students when they get to campus."
Mental health also is critical for college students, and Buzzelli says an increased emphasis on linking fitness and recreation to student wellbeing has led to emerging evidence of the vital role college recreation plays in the overall health of students.
A new NIRSA report published in June about the benefits of college recreation indicates that programming and resources offered by campus recreation departments make positive and lasting impacts on students both in the classroom and in their personal lives.
The report found that over a five-year period between 2011 and 2016, students participating in a moderate number of campus recreation activities and those making greater time investments in those activities reported higher grade-point averages than nonparticipants. Additionally, college recreation programming has a positive impact on the likelihood of student retention, and participants are more likely to say that a healthy lifestyle will be more important to them after college than nonparticipants.
"Not only are we trying to create happy and healthy students, but we're also trying to create a healthy and happy alumni base," Buzzelli adds. "The university plays an important part in the whole lifecycle."
That lifecycle begins with first-year students, and colleges and universities around the country are bolstering their efforts to reach freshmen and transfer students from the moment they arrive on campus.
At the University of Arkansas, representatives from University Recreation (UREC) for years staffed a table and gave a presentation at new-student orientation sessions.
"But we just weren't seeing a return on that," says UREC director Jeremy Battjes. "We said, 'You know what? We've got to find a way to better reach these students.' There's so much going on during the orientation process — it's information overload — and we had to be a little more creative and cutting edge to get their attention."
To that end, UREC last year introduced Healthy Hogs, a free 12-week, for-credit class that complements the academic experience by connecting at-risk students who might otherwise overlook UREC opportunities with co-curricular recreation and wellness programming. Students are placed into a peer network that regularly meets with a UREC staff member and peer mentor to learn about activities such as team building, personal training, networking and fitness programming.
Established as a pilot program for the Fall 2018 semester with a focus on personal fitness, Healthy Hogs is funded via a partnership with the university's Office for Student Success.
"What we learned that first go-round is that these students are extremely hard to get in the door," Battjes says. "They did not receive any academic credit, but it was a free program. We had probably 30 to 40 [students] say, 'Yeah, I'll do it.' But we wound up with only about eight who participated and three who made it all the way through."
So during the Spring 2019 semester, Arkansas offered Healthy Hogs as a one-credit class that targeted both at-risk students and the general student body via the required First-Year Experience Seminar course. Students are allowed to choose from several themed electives, and Healthy Hogs is one of them. The goal is to encourage students to eventually participate independently in the UREC environment.
"We saw an increase in the number of visits, with students willingly coming in on their own more than they ever had before," Battjes says. "All but one student who was on academic probation was off academic probation by the end of the semester, and the feel-good stories that we got from students told us this needs to be a regular thing."
Healthy Hogs is now an official part of the UREC curriculum.
Join the club
In addition to playing an increasing role in new student orientation, campus recreation officials at Robert Morris University are placing more emphasis on club sports as another way to enhance the sense of belonging that helps increase student retention from year to year.
"I think we take club sports participation a step further than many other campuses by doing outreach to high school student-athletes and letting them know about some of the programs we have," Buzzelli says. "We tell them, 'You may not be an NCAA-level athlete, but you love your sport, and we're going to give you an opportunity to compete at the intercollegiate level. That might sway the decision of somebody who really loves a sport and doesn't want to stop playing competitively."
RMU connects with high school students through high school coaches and showcase tournaments, as well as via a "Recruit Me" button on the university's club sports page.
"We're looking at club sports as a niche to attract students," Buzzelli says. "We've found, just in the short amount of time we've increased our focus on club sports, that our teams have gotten better [on a national level]. And as teams get better, it becomes an easier sell to students."
Regardless of the approach college recreation officials take toward engaging more students, Battjes suggests tracking participation data in new ways that connect that information with academic performance, retention and other factors that will make key administrative professionals on campus sit up and take notice.
"I think it's important to celebrate your successes and make sure you're sharing that data with everyone around the table at the university," Buzzelli adds. "We want to show that we are a valuable resource in both recruiting and retaining students, so I think the more you can collect data and celebrate your accomplishments, the more that will come back to you in the form of resources and support."
This article originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of Athletic Business with the title "What role should college rec play for incoming students?" Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.