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Should You Retire to a College Town?

AARP’s Livability Index finds that college communities — small, but with big-city amenities — rate highly

Customers David Bachrach and Paul McLoughlin at coffee shop in Boulder, CO

Matt Nager

Customers enjoy the outdoor scene at a coffee shop in Boulder, Colo., home to the University of Colorado.

En español | As Kathleen Wright scoped out potential cities for retirement, she stayed in a hotel across from the University of Georgia campus, marveled at the bucolic view of massive oak trees and took note of the vibrant energy from the students. This is love at first sight, she thought. This is something I can do. 

Athens, Ga., a city of 127,000, met Wright’s retirement criteria: a progressive community (as a Jamaican-born immigrant, she had faced less-than-welcoming situations in some other places), good public transportation and opportunities to “develop my brain more, get into the arts — and not just to be entertained, but to participate,” Wright says. Above all, it was affordable on a nurse’s pension.

After moving to Athens in 2007, Wright, then 62, discovered the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the university, where she met other curious retirees. Since then she has been brought to tears at performances of the Athens Symphony Orchestra, and she has joined the Athens Choral Society. She has also written a memoir, traveled around the world and ridden a horse (cross that off the bucket list). “The goal was not to work,” says Wright. “The goal was to really try to live.” 

‘Everything is compacted’

At first blush, it may seem odd that older Americans would be attracted to college towns — communities centered on the needs and desires of 18- to 22-year-olds. But get past the image of frat party keg stands, and it turns out that many of the same cultural amenities that appeal to college students — walkable neighborhoods with an abundance of restaurants and shops, reliable public transportation, sports and cultural events — also make sense for people in retirement. College towns in general tend to “punch above their weight when it comes to entertainment, restaurants, grocery shops and overall culture,” says David Gardner, a certified financial planner based in Boulder, Colo., who often works with retirees.

That’s why college towns consistently score high on AARP’s Livability Index, which rates communities on seven categories. “One of the reasons people come to a university town after working so long someplace else is because, here, everything is compacted,” says John Matlock, 71, retired associate vice provost and executive director of the Office of Academic Multicultural Initiatives at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. 

For David Bachrach, living in a youthful community is invigorating. Semiretired from running a business coaching physicians on executive leadership, he has time to attend Boulder’s annual Conference on World Affairs, an event that convenes speakers, writers, scientists and performers from around the world on the University of Colorado campus. “My wife and I like being around young people,” he says. “Chronologically we’re 70, but we’re young. We’re still learning, and we can do that here.” 

‘Peace of mind’

Another benefit of a college town: the health care. Joe Endrizzi, 73, retired from IBM and decided to stay in Rochester, Minn. Home to several universities, including the University of Minnesota at Rochester and the renowned Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science, Rochester draws patients from around the world with its first-rate health care. “It gives me peace of mind,” Endrizzi says.

Many universities operate hospitals that incorporate innovative treatments like cancer gene therapy and offer quality that’s on par with big-city facilities. For instance, the University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora ranked 15th on the 2017-2018 “U.S. News Best Hospitals Honor Roll.” In New Hampshire, the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, near Dartmouth College, is ranked as the best hospital in the state. 

“Many medical schools are anchors for college and university towns, and their quality of health care contributes to a higher livability score,” says Jana Lynott, codirector of the AARP Livability Index project. 

‘Boulder is a village’

Sally Friedman moved to Boulder in 2013. After a career as a McDonald’s executive, the former Kansas City, Mo., resident sought a more creative, bohemian life in retirement. A quick tour through her house demonstrates that she’s found it. Her basement is filled with mosaics in progress, along with bowls of shattered pottery, glass and mirrors for the artwork. She frequently walks downtown to the summer farmers market and yoga classes.

“Boulder is a village, and I say that having lived in Chicago and Washington, D.C.,” Friedman says. “I run into people I know on a regular basis everywhere I go.”

Rachel Walker is a freelance journalist based in Boulder, Colo., who has written for the Washington Post, the New York Times and Runner’s World

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