A building frenzy is taking shape at colleges and universities across the U.S., much as it did 40 years ago, when baby boomers first began to swell class sizes. This time the schools aren't adding desks. They're developing elaborate university-linked retirement villages. The goal is to lure back empty-nest alumni who want to live in a collegiate environment--auditing classes, picking up new skills for their postcareer career or giving something back as a mentor to young students.
"I hope to have a network of these communities in the future," says David Kane, associate executive director of the UCLA alumni association. Kane envisions as many as a dozen complexes serving all ages of UCLA's vast alumni population in the Los Angeles area. "Boomers are going to be tough to market to," he says. "These complexes can't look anything like a retirement community."
The newest developments boast open spaces and offer upscale upgrades, like mahogany floors and Corian counters. "We're transitioning from a generation of people who wanted to save all their assets to the boomers, who want to spend on themselves," says Martin Satava, executive vice president at Cooperative Retirement Services of America, which develops college retirement communities. About 50 of these facilities are up and running, including ones at Penn State, Notre Dame and the University of Florida. Thirty more are in design or marketing stages.
An influx of silver hair on campus could be a win-win-win for universities, their young students and the retirees. Educators have found that the insight and experience that older students bring to the classroom can invigorate discussions. There are also natural synergies, as with a medical or nursing college and a university-linked assisted-living residence. "Every unit of the university has something it can gain from this," says Bonnie Kantor, director of the Office of Geriatrics and Gerontology at Ohio State.
Make no mistake: this movement is about money as well as education. State funding of public schools is under stress, and private colleges are worried about pricing themselves out of the market. College-linked retirement villages are not cheap and promise a new revenue stream to fill in funding gaps. Striking a closer relationship with alums could also lead to more donations.
Not everyone thinks the communities are a great idea. "There are a number of potential risks," says Susan Fitzgerald, a public-finance analyst at Moody's Investors Service. "What if you've sponsored an assisted-living community and find out that residents have been mistreated?" The damage to the university's reputation could be crushing. There are financial risks too. Not all schools command the loyalty or have the brand name of a UCLA or an Ohio State. Small-college retirement developments might fizzle.
To tap into older folks' connection with their alma mater, a few schools have gone so far as to offer burial plots on campus. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for example, is the final resting place of alum Charles Kuralt, the former CBS newsman. But maybe that's taking things a step too far--for now, anyway. Boomers are only turning 60. They're not thinking about dying. They're thinking about reliving what many regard as the best years of their life. Who knows? Maybe that's what the years ahead will turn out to be.