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Colleges offer 'extras' to attract students
Darion Miller, a sophomore meteorology major from New Albany, Ind., eats lunch in the remodeled Selleck Quadrangle cafeteria. (William Lauer)

An over-the-hill, semi-famous artificiality now serves as one of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's newest recruiting tools.

No, not Tommy Lee. It's the FieldTurf that once covered Memorial Stadium and is now out to pasture on the campus' recreation football fields.

The fake grass has received more than a few stares from high school students considering UNL, says Alan Cerveny, the university's dean of admissions. And, as odd as it sounds, a long look at the turf can translate into a student looking harder at the Cornhuskers' university.  

"Every time something interests a student, it's another plus in our column," Cerveny says.

That's the mantra of college recruiters, administrators and governing boards across Nebraska and the country as they engage in a sort of arms race for the minds and tuition money of 18-year-old students.

Their weaponry: Giant campus recreation centers, apartment-style residence halls, gourmet cafeteria food and a bevy of other perks designed to lure high schoolers.

This arms race is caused by a generation of teenagers who expect some luxury, college recruiters say. It costs schools millions and has sparked a national debate about what one UNL official calls, "creature comforts."

Which are enough, and which are too much?

"The reality is that it doesn't matter what admissions deans think," Cerveny says. "We're in a situation where students are looking at what universities have to offer. If it's available at some schools, and not available at others, you have to pay attention to that."

Pay attention to new university construction across the United States, and it's clear this isn't your grandfather's higher education.

Penn State University recently built a student center featuring two ballrooms, three art galleries, a movie theater with surround sound, a 200-gallon tropical ecosystem that houses newts and salamanders and another, 550-gallon saltwater aquarium letting students view a coral reef, reports the New York Times. 

Ohio State University's new recreation center cost $140 million and allows students to kayak, hit at an indoor batting cage, climb a ropes course and get a massage, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education. It features a climbing wall big enough for 50 students to scale at the same time.

And Washington State University's Web site brags that its 53-person Jacuzzi is the largest on the West Coast.

"I think some of this stuff definitely appeals to students … but you also have to draw the line somewhere," says Shea Svoboda, a UNL junior and the student president of the Residence Hall Association. "If you have the money for the biggest hot tub in the world you better have the money for the world's best teachers, too."

Lincoln's public and private schools aren't leading the charge to offer amenities to students, but they say they aren't trailing, either.           

Husker Courtyards, an apartment-style residence hall, opened at UNL in August. Another, similar hall, Husker Village, will be ready for students next year.

The approximately 1,000 students who will fit into the two new residence halls don't have to bring their couch or scrub the toilet — the halls are both fully furnished and feature bathroom-only cleaning service.

The new two residence halls, major renovations to the existing Harper-Schramm-Smith residence hall complex and a newly remodeled Selleck Dining Hall — where a student can request his or her favorite type of omelette and watch as it's made by a cook — pull UNL ahead of many similar Midwestern universities, says Doug Zatechka, the university's housing director.

Combined, the six projects will cost approximately $80 million, a price tag mostly paid by revenue bonds.

"It is an ungodly amount of construction," Zatechka says. "The admissions office thinks it's incredibly important, and I tend to agree."   

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Last year, Union College renovated its student center, adding a gourmet cafeteria.

Nebraska Wesleyan University recently built several apartment- and townhouse-style residence halls that house 240 students. Students at the private liberal arts college can now order coffee at the Starbucks in the student center, eat in a newly remodeled gourmet cafeteria and work off those calories with a personal trainer.

"If students are choosing a school based on whether or not they get free camping equipment, they're probably not going to choose us," says Patty Karthauser, admissions director at Wesleyan. "But we do pay attention to what students want and need."

What students want has changed drastically in the past generation, everyone agrees.

Teenagers are often used to having their own bedrooms, bathrooms, cars, televisions and computers when they come to college, Zatechka says.

"They want a sense of privacy, a sense of space, a sense of color," he says. "It's different … I started college in 1961, and was so glad to be there I didn't care what we lived in. The food was inedible. We didn't care."

Higher education has also had to adapt to the technological wizardry of today's incoming college student.

Some schools give out a free laptop computer to students, a move both UNL and Wesleyan officials see as overly costly and too crass a recruiting tool.

Both schools are attempting to make their campus buildings wireless Internet accessible, responding to a demand from students who now come to campus with their own laptop computers and wireless Internet technology. They've also equipped residence hall rooms with high-speed Internet hookups.

"If you live here, you want the necessities, says UNL junior Svoboda. "And today, that includes high-speed Internet."

It's hard to gauge how much amenities make a difference to recruiting, both schools' admissions directors say.

But it's easy to see they do matter from the questions students ask during campus visits, and from their answers to formal and informal surveys once they do reach campus, Karthauser says.

She believes students still pick Wesleyan mostly because of its academic programs, but may factor in amenities when agonizing between two similar schools.

Zatechka has his own, anecdotal proof that what he calls "creature comforts" are more important than ever to UNL's students.

Last year, the housing office placed architectural renderings of the newly renovated Harper Hall in places where students signing up for residence halls could see them.

They saw a washer and dryer on every floor, more privacy in the bathrooms, more study spaces and expanded student lounges. 

The hall filled in four hours. 

"I've been doing this a long time, and I've never seen a sign-up like that," he says. "It proves that they really, really, really care."

Reach Matthew Hansen at 473-7245 or mhansen@journalstar.com.

 

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