Leisure Pools Go To College

The development of campus leisure pools represents just one facet of the changing recreation scene at colleges and universities.

By D. Scot Hunsaker | 1999
Aquatics International

It’s hard to believe they’re teenagers now. You still remember the day they were born. But how they’ve changed through the years, and now they’re off to college.

I’m not referring to your children. I’m talking about municipal leisure pools.

The looping slides, wide decks and wandering expanses of shallow water that characterize leisure pools have become common sites at municipalities throughout the country. In the past 20 years, leisure pools have changed the expectations for publicly provided, community aquatic recreation.

Now, leisure pools are packing their recreational elements and heading off to college and universities. No longer just for kids, leisure aquatic facilities are finding enthusiastic receptions in the land of higher education.

Breaking with Tradition

The development of campus leisure pools represents just one facet of the changing recreation scene at colleges and universities. School officials have begun shifting emphasis from facilities designed specifically for select, elite student athletes to facilities that accommodate the general student body.

Much of this change in philosophy came as a result of 1972’s Title IX legislation, which demanded equal facilities and opportunities for male and female athletes. As a result, schools now gravitate toward facilities that all students can enjoy and that serve as tools for recruiting a larger cross section of students.

Campus pools are classic examples of facilities catering to elite athletes. Most U.S. colleges and universities have at least a six-lane, 25-yard pool, and many institutions support world-class natatoriums with 50-meter pools, bulkheads, movable floors, diving towers, spectator seating and other amenities that shape a competition venue.

The children who grew up with lazy rivers and corkscrew slides, however, aren’t likely to flock in large numbers to the campus 50-meter tank, movable floor or not. And when the time comes to replace an aging pool, the university provost may take a long, critical look at the substantial costs associated with a facility that supports a small portion of the student body.

Standard Deviation

While college leisure pools may resemble their municipal brethren, significant differences exist. One is the absence of wet playground features; students may have grown up with fountains, sprayers and tumble buckets, but they’re now more interested in fitness and socializing. At universities, play features are replaced by large spas, bubble benches, current channels and lots of open space.

Although, slide features exist at most municipal leisure pools, not all colleges include these features. Some schools emphasize programming, and view a slide as simply a “toy”. But if a school plans to lease the facility for private parties, the presence of a waterslide can be a draw, especially fraternity and sorority functions. If a school hosts youth summer camps, a leisure pool with a slide can be quite attractive to a seventh-grader choosing a camp.

Because fitness swimming remains one of the most popular forms of exercise among students and faculty, lap lanes are a must. This is especially true if a leisure pool has replaced an existing competitive pool.

Even a standard six-lane, 25-yard pool can assume a different look to accommodate recreation users. At West Virginia University in Morgantown, the six-lane pool is intentionally too shallow for starting blocks or diving boards, resulting in a pool strictly for lap swimming. At Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, officials avoid the phrase “competitive pool”. Instead, they use the term “fitness pool”.

Differences between municipal and campus leisure pools exist beyond physical appearance as well:

  • Funding

For municipalities, funding comes from a variety of sources including sales taxes, general obligation bonds and referendums. At universities, leisure facility funding often comes from a combination of state legislature funding and student fees, or solely through student fees.

  • Revenues

Municipalities often rely on users to pay for a facility’s operation through daily fees, season passes, annual memberships and special program fees. Conversely, most universities still consider recreation centers a benefits and services to students and don’t charge fuser fees. Tuition and student fees generally cover on going expenses.

  • Clientele

Most municipalities must continually update and improve the various elements of their facility to maintain user interest year after year. A major clientele benefit of school leisure pools is the quadrennial turnover; schools are always getting new “clients” for whom the leisure pool remains a fresh experience. This turnover reduces upkeep expenses and promotes higher attendance rates.

  • Liability

School-based leisure facilities typically experience lower liability expenses than municipal facilities because the clientele is older and presumably more mature than the younger visitors at family aquatic centers.


Schools have nearly unlimited options regarding the size, features and amenities of a new pool. When making final decisions, numerous factors contribute to the end result.

  • Budget

You can’t get around it – the amount of available funding will always play a role in the type of facility built. One way to perhaps increase funding for a project is by creating a multi-use proposal. If designers can show school officials that a leisure pool can also serve the athletic department as a physical therapy and rehab facility and the physical education department as a leisure studies “classroom,” more funds may be allocated.

The University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, for example, justified requests for state funding by starting that Certified Pool Operator and other academic courses would be taught at the school’s leisure pool.

  • School philosophy.

Universities that make a commitment to enhancing the student body’s experience on campus are more inclined to support a leisure pool. Officials that think of these pools are toys are less inclined.

  • Committee structure

The makeup of the planning committee often plays an important role. If proponents of competitive aquatics dominate a planning committee, and general student populations offer little or no input, indoor 50-meter pools with separate diving wells and seating for several thousand are often the result.

With greater representation from the student population, competitive proponents usually agree to compromise, resulting in aquatic enters with shorter-course pools, fewer spectator seats and a leisure element. A strict budget watchdog on the committee often demands financial accountability, making the leisure pool seem still more attractive for its greater revenue-generating potential.

  •   Programmed for Pupils

At the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Informal Recreation and Aquatic Coordinator, Chris Denison never forgets the students. After all, the students committed their reserve funds – nearly 7 million – to pay for the school’s leisure pool.

Denison offers programming that emphasizes fitness and recreation equally. He must be doing something right, because more than 100 users visit the pool each day. Students also clamor for coveted lifeguard positions. “I’ve got about 30 applications on my desk for about six spots, “Denison said.

Lap swimming, jogging, deep-water aerobics and scuba instructions take place in the adjacent competitive pool, which frees up the leisure pool for students who want to use the waterslide, spa, bubble couch or fountain. To accommodate class schedules, Denison offers fitness classes in the morning, at lunchtime and in the early evening.

On the recreation side, Denison organized a rowdy “Aqua-lympics” that included underwater hockey, water volleyball, inner tube water polo, and the “waterslide speed challenge” where students were timed in their descents down the slide – the record is 7.4 seconds.

Denison takes care of the university community as well. More than 400 faculty and staff members paid a $120 annual fee to use campus fitness facilities, which include the leisure and competitive pools. On weekends, they can bring their immediate family for no charge and can enroll their children in learn-to-swim programs.

Additional revenues come from renting pool time to outside users. Ever protective of students’ pool time, Denison rents the pool to outsiders only during less attractive time slots: Fridays after 10 p.m., Saturdays between 6 and 8 pm., and early Sunday mornings. When student groups reserve the pool (fraternities and sororities often snap up the Friday night spot), they pay only the lifeguards’ wages. With the modest revenue he collects, Denison hopes to offer aquatic management seminars.