Guest Blog: The Future of Parks & Recreation Studies

By Robert F. Ashcraft | Posted on August 26, 2011

TextbooksAs a NRPA board member and also part of higher education, I read with great interest the cover story on the evolution of parks and recreation degree programs (Parks & Recreation, August 2011). Because I lead a major area of study at Arizona State University that is pertinent to the article, I noted a void in the story--the explosive growth of the field of nonprofit leadership and management, which is drawing students who might otherwise major in parks and recreation.

At ASU, the early iteration of nonprofit studies was in the Department of Leisure Studies, where the recreation major was housed. Students interested in youth agency administration majored in recreation but took their emphasis in the youth development arena that placed them squarely into the world of nonprofits (e.g., Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCA’s, Scouting programs--all nonprofits). Over time, and with the explosion of the nonprofit sector, a distinctive field emerged within nonprofit and philanthropic studies. In the case of ASU students who might have gone ahead with a recreation degree, many flocked to our major in nonprofit management and that was the case across many of the universities where youth agency administration was rooted in recreation departments. The growth of the nonprofit sector meant that students were exposed to a host of job possibilities that included recreation but also causes involving education, arts and culture, environment, health, etc.

So, the story is incomplete if only talking about sports management or tourism as drivers that evolved parks and recreation degree programs. ASU evolved its Department of Leisure Studies to a Department of Recreation Management and Tourism to what it is today, the School of Community Resources and Development, inside of which remains an increasingly shrinking (in student numbers) undergraduate and graduate degree in recreation. The name change was a direct result of the explosion of growth in nonprofit leadership and management, given the number of students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels interested in nonprofit management, philanthropic studies, and social entrepreneurship. The growth of jobs in the nonprofit sector, way beyond those directly tied to recreation, along with the shrinking number of jobs in public parks and recreation, is one part of evolving university-level programs as well.

Lastly, the final paragraph to your story is, in my opinion, the future for parks and recreation. Phoenix, among other cities, is asking nonprofit organizations to “take over” many local parks, visitor centers, etc. Collaboration and strategic alliances/partnerships are both the future and the present for many public parks and recreation departments. Tomorrow’s public parks and recreation professional may actually have a degree in nonprofit management rather than recreation.

Robert F. Ashcraft, Ph.D.
NRPA Board Member
Executive Director, Lodestar Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Innovation
Associate Professor of Nonprofit Studies, School of Community Resources and Development
Arizona State University, Phoenix