The Real Seniors on Campus

8 min read

Land for developers, classes for residents 

A new kind of senior is on campus. As described by Andrew Carle, an assistant professor at George Mason University, in northern Virginia, and founder of the nation’s first Master of Science in Senior Housing Administration (MSHA) Program, this new senior—age 55 all the way up to anything—lives on or near campus; goes to class, theater performances and ballgames; wears school sweatshirts, and engages in activities like mentoring undergraduates. It is, Carle says, “the future of    senior living.”

Purchase College, part of the State University of New York system, is proposing to build 385 units of housing for people ages 62 and older on 40 acres within its 500-acre campus, Akiko Matsuda reported in The Journal News. “Thomas Schwarz, president of the college who has been spearheading the project, called the proposed ‘senior learning community’ – under discussion for more than a decade – a ‘home run all around.’

“‘We’re excited about this. It offers a number of benefits. It offers integrated learning for our students, inter-generational learning,’” Schwarz said, noting that interacting with seniors who have firsthand experience in epoch-making events, such as the Civil Rights Movement or the Vietnam War, would give students better understanding of modern history.

“‘And it’s an extension of our educational mission. We see people being interested in continued learning and continued involvement in the arts.’”

“Arizona State University is looking to put a new twist on senior living in Arizona by opening a retirement community on a college campus,” Mike Sackley recently reported on the KTAR News site.

“The plan is for 230 independent living units and 60 assisted living units. The community will be geared to older residents who want to stay close to the university and remain engaged in a younger environment. Residents will also get a Sun Card, or a student ID. They will be able to use the ASU library and can take classes. There will also be an auditorium in the facility where classes can take place.”

The campus-senior relationship exists now on perhaps 100 campuses, including some of the country’s most prestigious schools, such as Penn State University, Duke University, Notre Dame, University of Texas and Dartmouth College.  Often, the housing facility is administered by a medical school, and a range of care is part of the package.

What constitutes a “relationship” between a senior living facility and an academic institution, has yet to have a formal or commonly accepted definition. But clear and undeniable is the gravitational pull of America’s aging: Baby Boomers are becoming Senior Boomers. By the end of the 2020s, 20 percent of U.S. citizens will be 65 or older; and, difficult as it may be for many to accept, “aging” can be placed in front of any generational term—Aging Xers and Aging Millennials will become seniors on dates that can be specified with pinpoint precision.

With this aging, something exciting—and still difficult to see—is being born on our nation’s college and university campuses.

Life Long Learners
“About one-third of all seniors say they are interested in these sorts of projects because they are attracted to the idea of becoming part of a community of life-long learners,” says Gerard Badler, Managing Director of the Boston-based Campus Continuum, which was founded in 2004 and assists developers and academic institutions who want to integrate senior communities within their campuses. “Seniors like the idea of being able to interact with younger students and with faculty and staff. And many of these projects are in small college towns with lower cost of real estate than where prospects live now. By downsizing and moving to a lower cost of living area people can stretch their retirement dollars—and enjoy a stimulating lifestyle as well.”

Thus, the top-rated locations on AARP’s Livability Index, which measures best places for aging, gives highest including many university towns such as Madison, WI; Boise, ID and Boston, MA.

Of course, such living is not for everyone. Many seniors, as can be expected, say they find college students “loud and obnoxious,” and have little desire to live near, or interact, with them.

“Until the Great Recession, the college-affiliated retirement marketplace was growing moderately,” Badler continues. “Since then there have been few newly built projects, but there has been renewed interest recently in studying the feasibility of specific projects.”

To date, most developers of senior housing projects on campuses have built  Continuing Care Retirement Communities-upon entering, healthy adults can reside independently,  when necessary they can move into assisted living or nursing care facilities.“But we expect greater growth in projects that start as independent living residences only for younger seniors,” says Badler, and what he calls “tighter integration” with academic institutions.

Tax credit driven construction has benefitted America’s colleges and universities. New Markets Credits funded the $16 million health and science building at the University of the Cumberlands in Williamsburg, Kentucky; the $20 million Nucleus Innovation Center Life Sciences Park at the University of Louisville; and the 2009 $30 million overhaul of the Boston Conservatory. Historic Credits were utilized to rethink usage of buildings on campuses, including Wayne State University in Detroit, Baldwin Wallace College in Berea, Ohio and the School of Public Health at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Senior housing on campus thus far has primarily depended on developer financing, traditional lenders and, in some cases, tax-free bonds. If the trend is to primarily independent residences, as Badler predicts, subsidized multifamily housing should be in the future mix.

Fundamental questions still await answers, Academia and the developers of senior housing—whether profit- making or nonprofit—can find it difficult to understand each other. Campus decision-making can be too slow for developers pressured by construction loans; and at the same time, academics must be careful not to too-readily lend their names and prestige to projects beyond their control.

George Mason University’s Carle has labeled the new category of senior housing University Based Retirement Communities (UBRCs). He suggests five criteria which any developer claiming “affiliation” with an academic institution should meet; in brief, they are:

  • A location accessible to the school;
  • Formalized programming incorporating the school and senior housing facility;
  • A full program of continuing care, from independent to assisted living;
  • At least 10 percent of residents have some connection to the school; and
  • A documented financial relationship between the school and the senior-housing provider.

Other experts argue about what exact specifications should be included, but such criteria provide a useful baseline because, among other things, senior housing providers can make a range of claims—it’s common to say that a facility has its own “campus” and “learning programs,” and  is situated in “close proximity to prestigious institutions of higher learning.”

Activity Influences Health
Whatever is being born, it appears likely that seniors and academic institutions could both emerge as winners.  Seniors need far more than they are getting now; the N.Y. Times reports, “We have added 30 years to our lives, not just for the lucky few but for the majority of people in the developed world, and now the developing world…. The truth is, we don’t yet know what this new stage of life can be, but the first step is to change the lens through which we view aging and challenge our stereotypical assumptions.”

A steady flow of studies, moreover, shows that these “new old” people can maintain and improve their physical and psychological health by engaging in exactly what academia offers; indeed, plasticity, the capacity of neurons in the brain to grow new connections, once thought to be an attribute only of the young, has now been found to exist in “late” life.

From academia’s perspective, seniors can do far more than attend classes or use the library. They volunteer, mentor, provide career advice, and engage in other activities that add a new dimension to the meaning of “diversity” on campus.

Indeed, a rough model for this may be found in a type of senior facility emerging across the country by such developers as Generations of Hope—in a particular building, some units are reserved for seniors; others for families.  There, the seniors must provide babysitting, and the parents of young children help the seniors with errands and provide other tasks.

Among the major attractions to developers is the availability of land.  In many areas around the country—including some urban centers—colleges and universities have the most available land which they can sell or lease.  The institutions can also earn annual fees in exchange for granting seniors access to the college’s programs and facilities, and through donations/bequests from residents.

“Surveys indicate that the best prospects for senior housing are willing to pay a significant premium over plain vanilla retirement projects in exchange for the college affiliation,” says Badler. “Such projects afford the developer with significant product differentiation that is able to draw prospects from a much wider geographic area than is typical for most retirement communities.”

Thomas Kuhn, author of the seminal book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), and widely regarded as the leading scholar on how new ideas take hold, writes that, “the pieces suddenly [begin] coming together in a new way.”

That’s what is happening now.  It is still too soon to see what will emerge, but a cautionary note comes from Badler: “Although colleges are often intrigued by the idea of hosting such projects it is rarely a major priority for them. Projects rarely go anywhere without the strong support and leadership of the President of the academic institution. All the other issues pale in comparison to this one.”