A war of amenities escalates among universities. Student fees rise to meet the challenge.
By BRADY DENNIS
Published February 3, 2004
[Times photo: Chris Zuppa]
University of Central Florida freshman Travis Dailey, left, rappels the climbing wall while Mark Seymour climbs the wall at the campus recreation and wellness center. The rock wall is one of the perks aimed at attracting top students.
TAMPA - Lunchtime, and the cramped food court inside the University of South Florida's Marshall Center swells with bodies. Students clamor for Chick-fil-A sandwiches, slices of pepperoni pizza and bowls of salad. Nearly every table in the place is full.
But down the narrow beige hallways, the rest of the union seems deserted. A few people lounge on worn sofas or around plastic patio tables. Several more shuffle in and out of the student travel agency and the campus bookstore. Two men shoot pool in a basement game room.
The Marshall Center has the essentials. But in the burgeoning, often mind-boggling world of educational excess, it's a, drab, outdated dinosaur.
That's about to change.
USF is preparing to spend millions of dollars - more than $50-million, actually - on a state-of-the-art student union.
It is part of a trend that is sweeping universities from coast to coast: the amenities war. The craze has spawned hot tubs and waterfalls, miniature golf courses and hair salons - all on college campuses.
New residence halls (no longer called "dorms") often include private rooms and baths, in-room washers and dryers and television with HBO. New recreation centers feature everything from kickboxing classes to climbing walls. Student unions have turned into on-campus malls, complete with food courts and retail stores.
"(Students) have greater expectations and greater needs now than they used to," said Guy Conway, the director of USF's Marshall Center. "Obviously, students should decide where to go to school based on the academic programs. But they don't always do that."
Michelle Barone's jaw drops as she walks into the sparkling glass and brick recreation center at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.
The 84,000-square-foot building opened in January 2002, a $13-million palace of recreation. Among the perks: treadmills equipped with cable television, an indoor jogging track surrounding 22,500 square feet of athletic courts, 18,000 pounds of free weights, scores of cardiovascular machines, a fruit smoothie bar and a 41-foot-high climbing wall.
Outside, students play tennis on one of six courts (the university is adding a "championship court" with grandstand). Swaths of intramural fields spread out in the distance.
"This is just ... I'm blown away," said Barone, a 19-year-old from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., who has come to town for a campus tour.
She listens slack-jawed as a guide talks about the center's yoga, spin and kickboxing classes. When he mentions the on-site personal trainers and masseurs, she turns and smiles at her 41-year-old brother, Carmine Barone.
He said he went to UCF two decades ago and barely recognizes the place. "This is just crazy," he said.
The recreation center is the last stop, the highlight, of UCF's campus tour. But by the time prospective students reach it, they already have toured the $28-million student union, with its mall-like food court, CD and computer stores, ophthalmologist's office and glass-roofed atrium.
They have walked past the campus Barnes & Nobles bookstore, with its Starbucks coffee shop, past the campus hair salon, the SunTrust Bank ("official bank of the university"), the office supply store, the T-Mobile vendor and the "academic village" residence halls with weekly cleaning service.
UCF's multimillion-dollar efforts to add amenities have helped fuel the school's unrelenting enrollment boom. With about 42,000 students, UCF has become the state's second-largest university.
"Students expect this," said Suzi Halpin, director of UCF's student union. "You have to design buildings with what students want. They want everything in one spot. Students have a lot more choices these days. They can be demanding customers."
A national craze
During the past decade, and especially since 2000, the amenities boom has spread to every corner of the nation.
Washington State University built what it calls the largest Jacuzzi on the West Coast - it holds 53 people. The University of Southern Mississippi is planning an all-out water park, with water slides and manmade river.
Students at the University of Texas can grab a veggie wrap and a massage in the same building. And Ohio State University this year will open a $140-million, 657,000-square-foot mammoth recreation center with indoor batting cages, ropes courses and an indoor turf field.
The University of Florida is building a campus skate park (it already offers wind-surfing and water-skiing at a nearby lake) and has plans to add another building to its recreation center.
Closer to home, the University of Tampa's Ronald Vaughn Student Center houses a two-story sports cafe, a Barnes & Noble bookstore and a movie theater.
How are schools paying for this newfound extravagance?
Most often, the money comes from increased student fees, sometimes hundreds of dollars more per student, per year.
The New York Times reported recently that universities are borrowing money at an alarming pace, primarily for new construction. In either case, critics claim, the price of campus perks is driving up the cost of education.
At USF, officials are fighting the amenities war battle by battle.
The school has invested $2-million to renovate its aging cafeteria, altering it so food can be made to order.
Since 1997, the university has renovated its existing residence halls and torn down its weathered efficiency apartments. It has renovated 600 beds and built 1,790 new ones, many in the form of four-bedroom, two-bath apartments, each with living room, kitchen, cable and Ethernet.
"We're dealing with a different type of student than we were dealing with even a few years ago," said Tom Kane, director of residence services at USF. "Students coming now haven't shared a bedroom. The idea of sharing is alien to a lot of kids."
Another 610 beds are under construction. The school expects to have 5,000 students living on campus by 2007.
USF hopes to break ground on its student union project sometime this year. The two-phase construction could take about five years to complete. The union now measures 110,000 square feet, and officials say the new structure will be almost three times as large.
A student fee has been approved to cover the first of the project's two phases; it will cost the average full-time, 15-hour student $42.50 per semester. Such charges have become as much a part of college costs as books and tuition. "I think it's very much here to stay," said Conway, the Marshall Center director. "The expectations are going to continue to increase."