Overview of the Current Landscape of Outdoor Programs in Higher Education


  • Jeff Turner Georgia College and State University
  • Jeremy Jostad Eastern Washington University
  • Brent J. Bell University of New Hampshire
  • Kellie Gerbers Westminster College
  • Will Hobbs Brevard College
  • Elizabeth Andre Northland College
  • K.C. Collins Brevard College




academic programs, higher education, census


Recent recognition of the growth and significance outdoor recreation industry indicates a need for outdoor-focused academic programs in higher education, yet broader trends affecting higher education may especially impact these programs. Our census methodology identified 128 undergraduate outdoor academic programs; more than previously identified in the literature. The most common higher education institutions to have an outdoor academic program are public, doctoral granting, and located in cities and in the southeast. However, those most likely to have an outdoor academic program are public and doctoral-granting, but are located in rural areas and the Rocky Mountain region. This research provides the foundation for future work which seeks to better understand the unique characteristics of these programs as well as to identify trends in program introduction and elimination.

Author Biography

Jeff Turner, Georgia College and State University

Associate Professor, Outdoor Education
School of Health and Human Performance


Archibald, R. B., & Feldman, D. H. (2006). State higher education spending and the tax revolt The Journal of Higher Education, 77(4), 618-644.

Bell, B. J., Holmes, M. R. & Williams, B. G. (2010). A census of outdoor orientation programs at four-year colleges in the United States. Journal of Experiential Education. 33(1), 1-18.

Bell, B. J., Horner, J., & Morrissette, R. (2020). Community college outdoor leadership degree programs: Looking for outdoor leadership. Proceedings of the 2020 Symposium on Experiential Education Research. 13-14.

Bergstrom, J. C., Stowers, M., & Shonkwiler, J. S. (2020). What does the future hold for U.S. national park visitation? Estimation and assessment of demand determinants and new projections. Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics, 45(1), 38-55.

Burns, S., Wang, X., & Henning, A. (2019, April). Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). NCES Handbook of Survey Methods. National Center for Education Statistics. https://nces.ed.gov/statprog/handbook/pdf/ipeds.pdf

Canberg, A. S., & Daniels, M. J. (2004). The diffusion of outdoor adventure leadership degree programs in the United States. World Leisure, 4, 22-34.

Garvey, D. & Gass, M. A. (1999). Hiring preference trends in the outdoor adventure programming field. Journal of Experiential Education, 22(1), 44-49.

Guthrie, S. P., Cavins, B. J., & Gabriel, J. (2012) History of outdoor recreation in the United States: An outdoor program administrator’s perspective. In G. Harrison and M. Erpelding (Eds.), Outdoor program administration: Principles and practices (pp. 15-30). Human Kinetics.

Kish, L. (1979). Samples and censuses. International Statistical Review, 47(2), 99-109.

Li, A. Y. (2017). Dramatic declines in higher education appropriations: State conditions for budget punctuations. Research in Higher Education, 58(4), 395-429.

Lown-Hecht, T. (2016, December 9). The REC Act just passed: Here’s why it’s such a big deal. Outdoor Alliance. https://www.outdooralliance.org/blog/2016/12/9/the-rec-act-just-passed-heres-why-its-such-a-big-deal.

Maningas, M., & Simpson, S. (2003). Preparing to be an entry-level outdoor leader: Hiring preferences of accredited organizations of the association for experiential education. Journal of Experiential Education, 25(3), 354.

Outdoor Foundation. (2021, June 22). 2021 outdoor participation trends report. https://outdoorindustry.org/resource/2021-outdoor-participation-trends-report/

Potter, T. G., Socha, T. L., & O’Connell, T. S. (2011). Outdoor adventure education (OAE) in higher education: Characteristics of successful university degree programmes. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning, 12(2), 99-119. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14729679.2011.591912

Protopsaltis, S., & Baum, S. (2019). Does online education live up to its promise? A look at the evidence and implications for federal policy. Center for Educational Policy Evaluation.

Seaman, J., Bell, B. J. & Trauntvein, N. (2017). Assessing the value of a college degree in outdoor education or recreation: Institutional comparisons using the college scorecard and surveys of faculty and employers. Journal of Outdoor Recreation, Education, and Leadership, 9(1), 26-41.

Sugerman, D. (1999). Outdoor leadership education: the past, present and future. Proceedings of the 1998 International Conference on Outdoor Recreation and Education (pp. 75-81). Association of Outdoor Recreation and Education.

Taff, D., Dvorak, R. G., Dawson, C. P., McCool, S. F., & Appel, P. A. (2016). Wilderness in higher education: Considerations for educating professionals for the next 50 years. Journal of Outdoor Recreation, Education, and Leadership, 8(1), 26-41.

Taylor, R. (2020, November 10). New U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis numbers underscore immense value of the outdoor industry. Outdoor Industry Association. https://outdoorindustry.org/press-release/new-u-s-bureau-economic-analysis-numbers-underscore-immense-value-outdoor-industry/

U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (n.d.). Detail for CIP code 31.0601. https://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/cipcode/cipdetail.aspx?y=55&cip=31.0601

U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2021). Digest of Education Statistics, 2019 (NCES 2021-009), Table 330.10. https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=76

Wolniak, G. C., George, C. E., & Nelson, G. R. (2018). The emerging differential tuition era among U.S. public universities. In P. N. Teixeira, A. Veiga, M. J. Rosa and A. Magalhães (Eds.), Under pressure: Higher education institutions coping with multiple challenges (pp. 191-214). Brill. https://doi.org/10.1163/9789004398481_012






Coalition for Education in the Outdoors Special Issue 2022