- By Amy Milshtein
- December 1st, 2008
Many of today’s colleges and universities are thinking about building a new kind of housing — one that’s very different from the dorms, residence halls, suites, apartments, or anything else they’ve ever done before. It’s retirement housing and, if done right, could be a major asset to your school and community. Doing it right, however, is not as easy as you think.
“One of the most frustrating things is being in a meeting with a facility manager who says, ‘we build dorms all the time. Why can’t we build a retirement community?’” said Andy Carle, assistant professor and director of the program in assisted living/senior housing administration, George Mason University. “Well, you contract out your food service, don’t you? If you leave that to the pros, why would you tackle this on your own?”
Retirement communities on colleges are nothing new. “The concept has been around for a number of years and has really taken off in the last ten,” said Katherine Brod, senior vice president, Zeigler Capital Markets. The market segment promises to grow as our population ages. “There’s a baby boomer turning 60 every seven-and-one-half seconds” reported Carle. “By 2025, one-fifth of the population will be over 60.”
Citing the Differences
What makes a retirement community different from other housing? “Plenty,” said Sarah Mashburn, spokesperson for the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging. “I like to say ‘if you’ve seen one retirement community, you’ve seen one retirement community.’” Continuing care retirement communities (CCRC) usually have at least three levels of living: independent living, assisted living, and skilled nursing and/or dementia. “Not all residents will move through all the levels,” said Mashburn. “But all should be provided.”
That’s because this generation of seniors demand a retirement like no other group before. They have so many options in front of them, and they want to take full advantage, usually with the blessing of their adult children. “My mother is on her third generation of computer,” explained Brod. This is one of the reasons why a university-based retirement community (UBRC) is so appealing to them. “Today’s seniors don’t want to live on ‘Elderly Island’ situated on a golf course or a mountain resort,” said Carle. “They demand a multigenerational, active experience, and a UBRC done right can provide that.”
Location, Location, Location
Carle identifies five criteria that turn a CCRC into a UBRC. The first is proximity. “Ideally, the community should be located with one mile of core campus facilities,” he explained. Next, the school and the facility should have a written agreement of two-directional programming. “It needs to go both ways,” continued Carle. “Residents should be able to audit classes, attend events, and use other campus services, while students should be encouraged to do paid or volunteer work at the community or take advantage of research opportunities.”
“The potential for academic growth is huge when there is a CCRC on campus,” said Mashburn. “There’s a living laboratory right there.” Athletic and arts departments can also find a built-in, eager audience as well, like the ones at Kendal at Oberlin, a CCRC located in Oberlin, OH, less than one mile from Oberlin College. Conservatory students play concerts regularly for residents. “The relationship between Oberlin and Kendal is very tight,” said Brod. “The school provided $2M in seed money to fund the Center, and along with concerts, the school uses the spaces for their administrators and for limited lectures.”
Defining the Relationship
Not all schools boast such a close relationship with the retirement communities that bear their names. “Forest at Duke has no affiliation other than their name, and it’s similar at The Colonnades at UVa,” continued Brod.
A situation like that is why the third criterion, a financial partnership between the school and the UBRC developer, remains so important. “Both parties need a vested financial interest in the community’s success,” explained Carle. “Though that relationship can be hard to broker.” Carle pointed to the inherent differences between a big, bureaucratic, not-for-profit-university and a nimble, for-profit developer who is used to finishing a job in 22 months as the cause of the rub. “The two groups don’t speak the same language,” he said. “Lots of times I have to act as a translator between them.”
Schools also must understand that to remain successful a UBRC must offer the full continuum of care. “In reality, there is no such thing as the 55-year-old residents,” said Carle. “Most are in their mid-70s and will need the skilled nursing and assisted living component.” Not including this group is bad business, according to Carle. “Who wants to be the person to tell a potential donor that they have to move out?” he asked. This brings up another lucrative benefit to the college or university — happy benefactors. “No one is going to leave a financial gift to the housing company,” said Carle. “But they will leave it to the school.”
The final criterion is that at least 10 percent of the residents have a direct connection with the school, be it ex-faculty, alumni, or parents of alumni. “Successful communities still pull the standard market draw,” explained Brod. That draw is from a 50-mile radius of the retirement center, but a connection to the school is what makes UBRCs so special. “They like to say that the best physics department in the world is at Kendal at Ithaca because of all the retired professors living there,” related Brod.
Of course, a university isn’t required to meet all of these criteria to provide retirement housing. Carle classifies meeting three to four as a University Linked Retirement Community. Meeting one or two would make it a University Affiliated Retirement Community. “What this does is let retirees know exactly what the university can or cannot offer in terms of a retirement living experience,” he said. “If they don't care if the school has formalized programming, that's fine, but they should know going in.”
Carle guesses that there are probably two to three dozen retirement communities that meet some of his criteria today, with another 100 in development or under construction. But along with the benefits, Carle warns that things can go wrong. “It’s best to go into a venture like this with a knowledgeable partner,” he insisted. “Don’t try to own and operate it on your own. The risk is too high.”