Headed off to college, huh? Guess it’s time to pack away your toys, prepare to sit in a classroom and think seriously about a career.

Yes and no.

Rather than stow their mountain bikes and kayak paddles, more students are putting them to use in outdoor classrooms, first as recreation majors, then as guides, camp directors, rangers and creative forces in the outdoor and recreation industries.

At least 10 universities within 250 miles of St. Louis offer degrees in recreation with emphasis on the outdoors, and they share a heavy focus on experiential learning. “You can’t sit in class and learn to rock climb,” said Tina Colson, recreation professions program director at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

They also share success in landing jobs for their grads: Between 85 and 95 percent of each school’s graduates are employed or pursuing an advanced degree within six months. Here’s a look at the schools, focusing on programs of interest to outdoor enthusiasts.

University of Illinois
Location: Champaign, Illinois
Degrees: BS in Recreation, Sport and Tourism with an emphasis in Recreation Management; MS and PhD in Recreation, Sport and Tourism
Defining Features: The school takes an integrated approach. “Outdoor adventure is definitely a part of the tourism industry, and sport is integral to tourism, both at the tournament and professional levels,” said Professor Laurence Chalip, head of the department. “We’re one of the few programs in the country that blend all three.” The department has formed an engagement partnership with nearby communities in which students are hired to work in recreation programs and facilities. In addition to the standard skydiving and climbing clubs, U of I offers Play for Change, an extracurricular group that works with organizations such as Boys and Girls Clubs and uses recreation to promote social justice.

Southern Illinois University
Location: Carbondale, Illinois
Degrees: BS in Recreation with an emphasis in Recreation Management, Outdoor Leadership or Therapeutic Recreation; MS in Recreation
Defining Features: On-the-job training is especially rigorous, as students must complete two field experiences as well as an internship. New course offerings focus on the outdoor industry, “catering to the needs of large organizations like REI and Gander Mountain,” Colson said. “They’re looking to hire students with outdoor skills who can also market or design gear.” The university’s Touch of Nature Environmental Center comprises 3,100 acres of hills and forests around nearby Little Grassy Lake and Shawnee National Forest, offering adventure and environmental programming for students, children and adults of all ability levels. “We consider it our lab,” Colson said. “We have fieldwork placement in-house and great internship opportunities to offer our students.” Among the unique programming options is Veteran Adventures, in which students pair up with former members of the military for bonding in an outdoor setting.

Illinois State University
Location: Normal, Illinois
Degrees: BS in Recreation Management or Therapeutic Recreation; MS in Recreation Administration
Defining Features: The program includes more than 300 students, but even non-majors have access to the Adventure Program offered through Campus Recreation, which includes a 47-foot climbing wall and adaptive climbing for all ability levels. The university just approved construction of an expanded adventure facility that will include a high ropes course. Majors must complete internships in both their junior and senior years. “We’re also proud that one of recent graduates, Tyler Veerman, was chosen to be a Select Member of the Spartan Pro Team and is having a great season, so far,” said Professor Brent Beggs, the program director.

Western Illinois University
Location: Macomb, Illinois
Degrees: BS in Recreation, Parks and Tourism Administration, with six emphasis areas, including Outdoor Recreation and Natural Resources Recreation Management
Defining Features: The department operates the Horn Field Campus, one mile south of Macomb, as a laboratory for courses in camping, outdoor education, resource management, nature interpretation, leadership and adventure education. Programming includes the Environmental, Conservation and Outdoor Education Expedition, a semester-long field studies program. Each spring, the department sponsors the Professional Development Conference, where alumni return and present seminars for students.

Eastern Illinois University
Location: Charleston, Illinois
Degrees: BS in Recreation Administration
Defining Features: The program requires a fieldwork course, which includes 15 hours per week off-campus, as well as a semester-long internship. Eastern also offers a minor in recreation administration and an online/hybrid option.

Mizzou outdoor program

University of Missouri
Location: Columbia, Missouri|
Degrees: BS in Parks, Recreation and Sport, with four emphasis areas, including Recreation Administration or Natural Resources Management; MS in Parks, Recreation and Tourism; MS and PhD in Human Dimensions of Natural Resources
Defining Features: The largest program in the region, with 375 students, its mandatory internship for 12 hours of credit has included opportunities in-state and with nearby municipal park systems as well as: Echo Canyon River Expeditions (Colorado), American Conservation Experience (Arizona), Major Marine Tours (Alaska), San Juan Jan Safaris (Washington) and National Park Service. Students assist with management of the Bear Creek Half Marathon, which takes place on the Bear Creek Trail; conduct visitor impact assessments at Rock Bridge State Park and site evaluations for Columbia Parks and Recreation. They also use and are involved in management of Venture Out, the university’s outdoor experiential education office that offers a climbing tower, winter orienteering and a wilderness first-aid course.

Missouri State University
Location: Springfield, Missouri
Degrees: BS in Recreation, Sport and Park Administration, with four areas of emphasis, including Recreation Management or Parks and Outdoors; MS in Health Promotion and Wellness Management
Defining Features: Missouri State offers a 16-day trip to Fiji and New Zealand every other year as part of its Outdoor Leadership course, as well as an annual six-day trip to Yellowstone. “We train our students to be outdoor leaders and work on judgement,” said Assistant Professor Hugh Gibson. “We believe outdoors expertise combined with decision-making skills transfer into a number of jobs: whitewater guide, naturalist, the National Park Service. When you’re not in class, we want you paddling or climbing.” Missouri State’s program was ranked No. 7 by CollegeValuesOnline.com. Mandatory experiential learning includes a 100-hour practicum as well as an internship that comprises approximately 400 hours. The program frequently partners with the National Park Service in internships at the Ozark National Scenic Riverways or with the Army Corps of Engineers at Table Rock Lake. “I have more partners asking me for students than I have students,” Gibson said.

Lindenwood University
Location: St. Charles, Missouri
Degrees: BA in Recreation, Sport and Tourism Management, with an emphasis in Outdoor and Adventure Recreation; Minor in Outdoor Leadership and Recreation Administration
Defining Features: Lindenwood’s program was ranked No. 17 by CollegeValuesOnline.com. Course offerings include Land Navigation, Caving, Scuba, Camping, Mountain Biking, Hiking, Canoeing and Rock Climbing. The school offers a semester-long Wilderness Institute, which includes backcountry skills, leadership and expedition behavior, risk assessment, decision-making, environmental studies, ethics and leave-no-trace practices. Lindenwood also is home to a cycling team that finished fourth overall at the 2018 USA Cycling Collegiate Road National Championships. Season highlights included Jonah Mead-VanCort winning the national men’s criterium title and the women’s team finishing third in the team time trial.

Northwest Missouri State University
Location: Maryville, Missouri
Degrees: BS in Recreation with an emphasis in Recreation & Parks Management, Corporate Wellness and Therapeutic Recreation; MS in Recreation Resource Management
Defining Features: As part of their playground, students have at their disposal the Mozingo Outdoor Education Recreation Area (MOERA), 320 acres dedicated to providing experiential learning opportunities that include a challenge course, kayaking and canoeing. Students also must complete two internships. Juniors spend 135 and seniors between 400 and 550 hours gaining practical experience. Northwest majors have secured internships close to home, in parks and rec departments in Maryville and Kansas City but also at the National Ability Center in Park City, Utah, and the National Sports Center for the Disabled in Winter Park, Colorado. “We know it creates networks and demonstrates performance. That’s hard to package,” said Assistant Professor Tyler Tapps. “We’re rooted in graduating professionals.” He added that every student has a one-on-one advisor that is a full-time faculty member.

Southeast Missouri State University
Location: Cape Girardeau, Missouri
Degrees: BS in Recreation and Parks Administration
Defining Features: SEMO helps its students find a job from the get-go; career planning is required in the first semester. Its internship opportunities appear geared to helping the next generation of outdoor enthusiasts. The school frequently places its students at nearby Meramec Adventure Learning Ranch and Camp Ondessonk, as well as Teton Valley Ranch Camp in Jackson, Wyoming.

Kathleen Nelson is a regular contributor to Terrain Magazine. She learned that endurance athletes and outdoor enthusiasts make the best storytellers through more than two decades as a sportswriter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.