At the end of each workday, Kathleen Hatch takes a lap.

She steps out of her office and walks through a weight training area that, at 17,000 square feet, is the largest of its kind in the nation. She peers down into the naturally-lit lap pool and accompanying 53-person hot tub, pokes her head in on a pilates class, and strolls past billiards and ping pong tables before rounding the four-lane elevated track that circles the gymnasium.

It counts as a light workout, but Hatch’s true motive is to take the pulse of one of WSU’s most expensive pieces of real estate—the $39 million student recreation center she directs.

The old facilities left much to be desired, students say. There were always long waits to get into a stuffy, windowless 5,000-square-foot weight room with outdated equipment. This facility offers not only more space: There are nutrition clinics, Internet portals, espresso and juice bars, personal trainers, massage therapists, and seminars on everything from weight loss to grizzly bear awareness.

Though some wince at the idea of these elaborate recreation centers taking precedence over libraries’ long wish lists, recruitment-minded colleges and universities are sparing little to build centers that emulate some of the nation’s most deluxe health clubs.

“Colleges and universities are having to compete for students more,” says Barry Brown, marketing director of the National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association, “and when they come to campuses, the rec center can be a determining factor for them to choose that university.”

That’s exactly what happened when Noreen Kariuki came to WSU to visit with her parents from Federal Way, Washington, last spring.

“I saw this and said, ‘I have to come to this school,’ ” says Kariuki, as she cycles on a machine with a bird’s eye view of a basketball court packed with young men playing hoops. More than 25,000 prospective students tour the facility annually, and it’s one of the first stops for coaches trying to lure athletic recruits to WSU. University of Washington and Gonzaga University officials have also stopped by to check out the hype. As more universities pour money into fancy recreation centers, there’s more pressure on everyone else to keep up, especially in the health-conscious Northwest, whose residents lead the nation in active living.

Such attractions are a draw for students, but also for their parents, eager to know their incoming freshmen will have a healthy alternative to the college bar circuit or campus parties. Rec center officials try to keep up on the latest fitness trends, offering new courses each year, such as this fall’s invitingly titled “boot camp,” as well as flatwater kayaking and belly dancing.

The center stays on top of trends, in part because it’s largely run by students. Four hundred students are employed on a $700,000 payroll, making the center one of Pullman’s largest student employers.

And it was students who originally requested, lobbied in favor of, voted on, and now pay for the center, the result of a 1998 student referendum calling for a self-imposed fee of $100 per semester to pay for construction, maintenance, and operation of the center. The 25-year bond requires WSU to pay a $3 million debt annually. Operation and maintenance take another $3 million. There has been some grumbling each year as fees have edged up without students’ consent, adding to the already difficult burden of tuition hikes. Students, who originally voted for the $100 fee in 1998, have watched the fee climb to $120 per semester over the course of three years. The fee increase translates into salary increases and annual improvements such as the 50 new cardio machines on the floor this fall. There is a sense of responsibility to justify the expense, admits Hatch, the center’s director. “The $40 million question is, is this a luxury or a necessity? You don’t spend $40 million to win a couple of awards. The physical building has to inspire activity, reach students who are sitting on the fence. But since the day we’ve opened we’ve seen evidence of that happening.”