WASHINGTON -- Climbing walls, racquetball courts or a cool swimming pool with a water slide may be among the student perks that colleges keep behind their ivy-covered walls.
Elaborate recreation centers with cybercafes as well as exercise equipment and playing courts for basketball or volleyball are important ways to attract and keep students, schools have found.
"We have a 52-foot climbing wall, so they are thinking, 'Now, this is a place I want to come,' " said Kim Scott, director of campus recreation at Baylor University.
A building boom in recreation centers has been under way since the early 1990s, according to the National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association. The college trade group's 725 member institutions have 1,546 rec centers, nearly half built since 1995, including 25 percent built since 2000.
Sixty percent of the nation's colleges and universities have rec centers, and on average, about 75 percent of the students use them, with about a quarter of them being rec rats, said Aaron Hill, the group's marketing director.
If the student union is the family room, the rec center is the play room, Hill said.
Rec centers in larger schools can cost more than $100 million, said Erik Kocher, part-owner of the St. Louis architectural firm of Hastings and Chivetta, which specializes in college and university building design.
Centers at big schools emulate deluxe private health clubs, with saunas and steam rooms -- even whirlpools, sprays, and slides -- and staff lead programs that range from karate to yoga, he said.
Smaller schools are being pressured by their big school competition, and are spending $20 million or more on combined rec-athletic centers, Kocher said.
In small towns where there is little else to do, the rec center, which is included in tuition costs, is an alternative to the college bar circuit, Hill said.
The center lets students burn off the stress and gives them a chance to challenge themselves, Scott said. "If they can conquer a 52-foot rock, they can conquer chemistry and neuroscience," she said.
The rec center also enables students to learn or continue healthy living habits, Scott said. Her center offers counseling on proper nutrition and sleep.
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