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Retirement Living With a Campus Twist

College-based communities offer unique amenities for older adults, income streams for schools

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Karen Busch squeezes in a conversation between classes and a concert at Arizona State University, where she’s a student — but not a conventional one.

Busch is 79, retired and lives in Mirabella at ASU, a sleek, 20-story community on the Tempe campus that opened in late 2020. Mirabella residents can take advantage of the classes, culture, extracurricular activities and even research projects at the bustling university.

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“I’m not ready to stop learning,” says Busch, who worked as an administrator at several other universities and whose late husband was a sociology professor at Michigan State.

She recounts a fellow resident telling her, “ ‘The day we start bingo is the day I leave.’

“And that’s the point,” Busch says. “This is not about just finding stuff to do. It’s purposefully learning and figuring out things and ways to still, in some way or another, contribute to the world.”

Mirabella is among the flashiest of a wave of university-based continuing-care retirement communities, also known as CCRCs, life-care communities or life-plan communities. There are more than 100 such facilities operating on or near university and college campuses in 30 states. These include Vi at Palo Alto, just off the Stanford campus in California; Kendal at Oberlin in Ohio; University Place at Purdue and Holy Cross Village near Notre Dame in Indiana; Lasell Village at Lasell University in Newton, Massachusetts; Capstone Village at the University of Alabama; The Woodlands at Furman, next to Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina; and Oak Hammock at the University of Florida.

Among the newest projects are The Spires at Berry College in Rome, Georgia, which opened in 2020; Legacy Pointe at the University of Central Florida, which debuted in 2021; and Broadview Senior Living at Purchase College in Purchase, New York, scheduled to open in fall 2023. Several more are under development.

Others, including The Forest at Duke in North Carolina and Longhorn Village at the University of Texas, are expanding. Mirabella at ASU was sold out before construction was completed (though there are openings again for some apartment styles), and many other university-related retirement communities have waiting lists.

‘A university gives you so many options’

Like typical life-care facilities, many of these campus communities offer a mix of independent living units, assisted livingmemory support and skilled nursing care. They also have a similar pricing model, charging a steep entry fee and monthly payments. What distinguishes them is their varying degrees of connection with the partner schools.

Residents have easy access, and free or reduced admission, to campus music and theater productions and athletic events. In some communities, they can audit classes when there’s space available or fully enroll in some courses without charge. At others, residents are invited to teach or paired up as mentors with students.

Prospective occupants don’t have to be alumni of the associated institutions, though many are. Longhorn Village has its own chapter of the Texas Exes alumni club; about a quarter of the residents of Vi at Palo Alto went to, or worked at, Stanford.

Vi resident Amber Henninger is a Stanford alum, as was her late husband. Decked out in a Stanford T-shirt, sneakers and Stanford-red earrings, she leads a visitor beneath the building’s high-ceilinged lobby with its grand piano in front of floor-to-ceiling windows, settles into a sun-filled coffee lounge and describes why she moved here.

“People need to have purpose in their lives,” says Henninger, who at 88 goes to home basketball and football games, works as an usher at university events and attends as many as she can of the six lectures per month provided in Vi’s auditorium. “Retirement was going to be the next phase of life. It wasn’t going to be the end of life. And to connect with a university gives you so many options.”

The collegiate lifestyle has appeal not just for alumni but for retirees in general, says Paul Riepma, who, as senior vice president of sales and marketing for nonprofit developer Pacific Retirement Services, helped steer the Mirabella project.

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“We're seeing the front edge of baby boomers wanting more of what I would call nontraditional retirement experiences,” he says.

For Linda Cork, a retired Stanford professor, “the real issue is what type of community you want to live in.”

Cork, too, picked Vi at Palo Alto.

“What it’s about is who you want to spend the rest of your life talking to,” she says. Her fellow residents “want to be active mentally. It doesn’t mean we don’t have bridge groups and canasta and mah-jongg, but they are also very interested in the life of the mind.”

Schools get revenue streams

From universities’ point of view, the benefits are more pragmatic. Enrollment of traditional-age students is plummeting, down by 4 million in the past 10 years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. U.S. census data shows people 65 and older to be the country’s fastest-growing age group.

"Universities need to diversify, and if they're largely tuition-driven, you need to find other revenue sources,” says Tom Meuser, director of the Center for Excellence in Aging and Health at the University of New England.

Although student populations may be dwindling, many colleges have something else in abundance: real estate.

Turning that property into retirement housing can generate considerable income, of which the universities usually get a cut, through lease arrangements with developers or owning facilities outright.

Entry fees at Mirabella at ASU, a joint venture between Pacific Retirement Services and a university-affiliated nonprofit, run from $450,000 to $2 million, depending on the size of the apartment, and monthly payments are $4,500 to $5,000. Lasell charges $460,000 to $1.45 million to move in and monthly fees of about $4,800 to more than $11,000. A one-bedroom unit at Vi at Palo Alto in 2023 will start at slightly more than $1 million, with a monthly cost of $5,770.

Universities with associated retirement communities may also reap fundraising benefits. Under some CCRC contracts, entry fees are at least partially refundable to a resident’s estate when they die. By sharing their campuses with older people, many of them alumni or retired faculty, the schools could enjoy potentially generous bequests from those refunds.

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“This is a strategy to help enhance alumni loyalty and expand the ways alumni can connect to their alma mater, and there are also development opportunities for the universities,” says Brian Carpenter, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis who studies the psychology of aging.

‘A win-win for everybody’

The communities can also serve as laboratories for universities to study aging and provide work experience for students graduating into careers serving and supporting an aging population.

"The synergy is here,” Meuser says.

For instance, ClarkLindsey Village in Urbana, Illinois, though not affiliated with the nearby University of Illinois, invites faculty and students to conduct research on-site. The academics get access to older adults whom they can study, and the facility gets suggestions for improvements.

Such relationships make the university-connected facilities “a win-win for everybody,” says Jim Haynes, president of the National Continuing Care Residents Association, which advocates for CCRC residents and their families.

Busch, at Mirabella, thinks so, too.

“I can go to dinner every night, and we’ll sit there and talk about, ‘What are you doing these days?’ And someone will say, ‘I just went to this fascinating lecture,’ ” she says. “I have learned so much here.”

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