How Retirees Can Help a College Town Thrive

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Buddy Mays / Corbis

At Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio, Dean of Students Kimberlie Goldsberry lives in an on-campus apartment building with a diverse set of neighbors. While a typical Ohio Wesleyan student lives next door, a 90-year-old retiree lives across the hall. In fact, about half the people living at Austin Manor are over the age of 70 thanks to a unique intergenerational initiative that began decades ago. But they still have regular movie nights and holiday parties with the roughly 25 students who live in the building. They even throw a welcome party each fall when new students move in.

“It’s not assisted living by any means,” Goldsberry says. “[The Austin Manor housing plan] draws a regular, routine connection to the community and it invites those seniors to feel comfortable on the campus, which I think is a very welcoming approach. They feel loyal to the institution.”

Austin Manor’s uncommon integration began in 1985, but it can provide a successful blueprint for how colleges and college towns can recruit both the young and the old today. Making a college town a retirement destination can help diversify a community’s economic base as well as its demographics.

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America’s 76 million Baby Boomers are looking for a different retirement experience than the one their parents had, says marketing strategy consultant Gerard Badler. “They’re not looking to retire to a golf community or a beach community. Some of them are looking for something that offers a more stimulating intellectual environment and volunteer environment. It seems that affiliating with a college provides the ideal mixture for those folks.”

Badler, a Boomer himself, is the director of Campus Continuum, a consulting company that works with colleges to develop on-campus retirement communities. He says universities like retirees because they bring age diversity, professional experience, and of course money to a college environment. Though the recession put the brakes on some schools’ plans to develop such communities, interest is growing once again. There are about 50 college-backed retirement communities currently in development, according to The New York Times, and such initiatives already exist at Ivy League schools like Cornell and big state universities like the University of Florida.

City governments have also gotten involved in the retiree recruitment game. In Oxford, Miss., for example, recruiting retirees is considered a vital part of the community’s economic development. Christy Knapp, a vice president at the Oxford-Lafayette County Economic Development Foundation, says seniors help provide a demographic balance to a town filled with young people. “They’re our very best volunteers,” she says. “They’ve made a huge difference in our community and the quality of life that we have here.”

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Seniors, who make up more than 20% of the town’s population, are particularly attracted to the University of Mississippi’s Lifelong Learners program, which lets residents over 65 take four free credit hours of class per semester. Similar programs exist in other towns that recruit retirees, such as the 1,800-member Lifelong Learning Institute at the the University of North Carolina at Asheville.

How will traditional college students feel about all these retirees moving in, though? At Austin Manor in Ohio, Goldsberry says the students who apply to live there are usually juniors, seniors or graduate students who appreciate the quieter environment so they focus on their studies. “You tend to get students that are really gong to have the best chance of being successful in that environment,” she says.

With traditional college enrollment beginning to decline, colleges and their communities will have to create more diversified economic engines, says John Gann, an economic consultant who advocates for the recruitment of retirees and alumni to college towns. “The key question to ask is how much of our economy is dependent on college students,” Gann says. “College towns have done well because students have still done pretty well. If business at that college declines, that’s going to hurt these communities severely.”

Seniors may provide part of the solution. “They don’t impact the school system, they pay taxes, they help many businesses in towns,” says Thomas Kepple, the president of Juniata College in retirement-friendly Huntingdon, Penn. “They have little negative impact on a town and a very large positive impact.”

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