Ideas about who attends college and lives on campus are expanding beyond 18- to 22-year-old students. Some campuses are looking well past that age range and thinking about how they might work with a different population: senior citizens.
Building senior living communities on college campuses, proponents say, gives retirees a lively and academic atmosphere while providing students with new mentors and internship opportunities. The college, of course, gets a little help with its bottom line.
“It’s one of these models that has, by design, mutual benefits on both sides,” said Lindsey Beagley, director of lifelong university engagement at Mirabella, the senior living community at Arizona State University. Mirabella, she said, “is not an afterthought to the core business of the university, but it’s actually integral to the strategy of the university to evolve to meet education needs.”
The model of putting retirement communities on college campuses picked up steam in the mid-2000s, said Andrew Carle, lead instructor for the senior living administration program at Georgetown University. He's also worked as a consultant for many institutions that have sought to build these partnerships, which he calls university-based retirement communities.
Here is the advice Carle suggested for colleges considering these types of moves.
Understanding the model
Carle has defined five metrics that make a university-based retirement community, and he believes at least three dozen communities in the U.S. meet his definition.
A successful community, according to Carle, should be very close to campus facilities, count at least 10% of residents as having some previous formal connection to the college like working or graduating from there, and have formal university programming, a full spectrum of senior living models, and a documented financial relationship with the college.
“Done well, everybody wins,” he said. “They’re extraordinarily good when they’re done right, but the problem is that they’re complicated.”
At Arizona State, Beagley said that first criterion — the choice of location — is extremely important in achieving an intergenerational feeling for the community.
“If this community was a mile off campus, that would drastically change the extent to which our community members feel a sense of belonging to the university, which is our goal,” she said. “It would prevent our ability to blur the boundaries.”
Making a financial arrangement
Typically, a college will partner with a senior living company that operates the community day to day. The institution makes money in these arrangements by leasing out its land or buildings and from an increase in ticket sales to arts performances and other events due to the new audience.
While some colleges take an active role managing the community or owning it through a subsidiary, Carle cautions against this kind of arrangement.
“Having spent over 30 years in healthcare and senior living, we get sued a lot. The overwhelming majority are frivolous, but that’s the nature of healthcare,” he said. “A plaintiff’s attorney, they look for the deep pockets."
A situation at the senior living community can also generate bad press for a college if it even has the appearance of ownership.
Doing your research
Partnering with a senior living company is imperative, and partnering with the right one is even more important, Carle said. That means researching main industry players and what they can offer.
Universities and senior living companies, Carle said, “are two completely different worlds. They speak two completely different languages.”
He relayed a story of a college in Florida that made a poor choice of its partner. The institution ended up losing $10 million in the process, he said.
Knowing what you can offer
While the model can be fruitful, not every college has the right setting for a retirement community.
“The biggest problem now is the small schools, who are very remote, very small, rapidly losing enrollment, who think a university retirement community is going to save them,” Carle said. “And unfortunately I have to explain to them that that’s just not going to happen.”
Often, these colleges simply don’t have the profile to draw in residents, and the venture may not be successful. Carle takes his clients through a rubric to see whether it is even worth exploring the option, which comes with expenses like feasibility or environmental impact studies.
The test involves looking at enrollment, public recognition of the college brand, and whether the campus offers Division I sports and major performing arts venues. If a college doesn’t have enough of the attributes retirees enjoy, it likely won’t find a partner.
All hope isn't lost for small colleges. They can be successful if they’re based in a desirable location.
Purchase College, part of the State University of New York system, is a small institution that is set to open its retirement community this fall. The college offers proximity to New York City, as well as abundant arts opportunities. The community, called Broadview, is already 93% full.
Milagros Peña, president of Purchase, touted the unique advantages the college offers. In addition to a musical conservatory environment, the campus is fewer than 30 miles from Manhattan, which is accessible by commuter trains.
The community, she said, can help all generations see past stereotypes and learn from each other.
“The idea here is to create an experience for both communities around a learning commons in which there is really intentional programming and learning and exchange,” she said. “Intergenerational learning is life-long learning.”
Legislation that allowed Purchase to partner with the senior living company was approved in 2011, but only in 2021 did local government approve the bonds to support construction.
Proceeds from the lease will support the college's goals, with 75% of revenue going toward scholarships for low-income students, and the remainder supporting additional new faculty.
Ashley Wade, executive director of Broadview, said although the senior residents haven’t moved in, they’ve eagerly tried to find ways to work with students, such as volunteering to appear in student films or meeting student recording artists on tour. Purchase already had a well-developed senior auditing program before the community was built, she said.
“There is as much variation among university-based communities as there is variation among college campuses. They can be wildly different with really different experiences,” she said.
Planning the learning
Retirees can integrate into a college’s academic life in a few ways.Many institutions already offer auditing options for local senior citizens
At Arizona State, about 40% of Mirabella residents regularly audit classes, Beagley said. They receive the same ID card as students and faculty, which allows them access to eight campus libraries and tech support.
Carle said many retirees want to remain intellectually stimulated but aren’t interested in a semester-long class. Colleges can consider delivering shorter lectures to a senior living community, through something like a lifelong learning center.
Working out the details ahead of time
Some colleges have entered partnerships with the understanding they will wait to nail down the details of ways retirees will overlap with the campus. But Carle said it's worth creating written agreements about performances, discounts, internships and other overlapping priorities a year before a community opens.
Carle said he has seen colleges that wait on these arrangements become overwhelmed when residents arrive and expect everything to already be worked out. Residents might be overburdened themselves if the college expects too many students to work or intern at the facility. And those situations can lead to a bad relationship between a university and provider, creating what Carle calls a “stranger on campus” scenario, where the company and the college grow apart and soon have nothing to do with one another.
Overall, senior living is not something colleges should dabble in without serious thought, Carle said.
“Do not just jump into this because it sounds cool,” he said.