Major General

By Elizabeth Beard | Posted on August 10, 2011

August coverMy mother chose my college major. Not because she was some sort of control freak, but just because I happened to be away from home the week the class registration paperwork arrived in the mail from American University (here I am dating myself a bit). She thought journalism “sounded cool,” and when she later showed me what classes she had signed me up for, I gave her the typical noncommittal shrug of the undeclared freshman. Upon some reflection, however, studying communication in the nation’s capital seemed like it might have some career potential.

Some college students bounce around majors like pinballs – they start out in one direction and often get bounced in several other random directions before gravity eventually takes hold. Others doggedly stay the course, refusing to be distracted from their Big Goal in life. But as I heard while interviewing some of the nation’s well-known parks and recreation academics for our June cover story, students today have much different interests than they did just a few decades ago.

College majors are very much on my mind lately as my own teenage son has started visiting schools and exploring various types of curriculums. He wants to be a chef and we are struggling with similar label issues (culinary arts vs. culinary science vs. food science vs. hospitality management) as is being seen in some parks and recreation academic programs. Does a soufflé by any other name taste as sweet? And will he come away with the right business management skills to be able to keep selling those soufflés?

But I wasn’t prepared to hear a familiar refrain a few days ago at the open house for Goodwin College at Drexel University in Philadelphia, which houses Drexel’s culinary, hospitality management, and education programs, among other offerings. There the question-and-answer session was dominated by one topic: Why was the school limiting the number of sport management majors? As I attempted to control my eye rolling, the college staff patiently explained (several times) that co-op job placements are mandatory at Drexel and there simply weren’t enough potential internship slots among the Phillies, Eagles, Sixers, etc., to place more than 35 students per year. Multiply that by the other universities in the Philadelphia area also offering sport management degrees, and you can see how even low paying or unpaid internships are in short supply. Left unsaid were the long-term career prospects.

I’ve got nothing against sport management majors – some of my best friends have sport management degrees (okay, that’s not really true but I have met a few and I really enjoyed my interview with Dennis Howard at the University of Oregon, who founded one the nation’s most respected sport business programs). Whether sport management graduates who have specialized in sports as entertainment are fully prepared to work in a parks and recreation environment based on sports participation is a question that I was disappointed to find out that no one can fully answer yet.

What parks and recreation academic programs may need to compete is that “cool” factor that journalism or parks and recreation used to have. If adding tourism or sport management to a program’s offerings can lure in a few pinballs who may bounce into parks and recreation, then it’s hard to argue with their success. As long as parks and recreation agencies offer essential services, then there will always be career options, according to Geof Godbey at Penn State. Dale Larsen at Arizona State University and the Phoenix Parks and Recreation Department told me that today’s parks and recreation agencies need to find partnerships to keep those essential services going, whether that means allying with tourism, sports, health, or some other field. And I heard from several other agency administrators that they are seeking potential employees with a variety of backgrounds and skill sets to help manage these partnerships. In this case, too many cooks may actually help the soufflé.

Elizabeth Beard is the Managing Editor for Parks & Recreation magazine.