At Colleges, What’s Old Is New: Retirees Living on Campus

College is a place to escape parental oversight for many new arrivals. But a growing trend on college campuses — to place retirement homes near the dorms — may one day prompt students to ask: “Is that grandma over there on the quad?”

Mary Jane Karger and her husband, Tom, both 74, have put down a 10 percent deposit on a retirement community to be built on 40 acres of the 500-acre Purchase College campus, a former cattle farm that is now part of the State University of New York.

Purchase is one of a growing number of colleges sponsoring retirement communities on campus or thinking about it. It is a marketer’s dream, monetizing spare land, while milking the baby boom generation’s affluence by appealing to their obsession with staying forever young.

“I don’t know how much students in their late teens and 20s want to talk to people in their 70s,” said Mrs. Karger, a retired school social worker who plans to live there. “I kind of like to think that they would.”

ImageMary Jane and Tom Karger live in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., but plan to move to Purchase College’s new retirement complex, which is expected to open in 2023.
CreditJoe Carrotta for The New York Times

The schools say their motive is more educational and social — encouraging intergenerational mixing — than financial. But the communities promise a new revenue stream for institutions that are coping with reduced state operating support and declining college enrollment in many parts of the country. They are bringing a new generation (or old generation) to campus to fill classes, eat in dining halls, attend student performances and become mentors.

“Look at the whole demographic issue, tuition debt and how states have defunded higher education,” said Tom Schwarz, who recently retired as president of Purchase College. “So the result of that is tuition is going up, the need for scholarships is going up. So it’s like well-working gears. It sort of fits together.”

Retirees who are happy to be living on campus, including alumni and faculty members, could become a fertile source of fund-raising. “We don’t expect 100 percent of the people to contribute, but in a sense, they’re contributing just by living there,” Mr. Schwarz said.

Many students have mixed feelings about sharing their college years with people who remind them of the parents and grandparents whose orbit they have just escaped.

Anton Creutzfeldt, a junior at Purchase College, worried that older people would object to noise and late-night partying. “It’s an interesting idea, but we struggle already on campus to have it feel like a college, because there’s not that much of an outlet for recreational stuff,” he said.

Mr. Creutzfeldt said he had been in classes that were audited by old people, and their presence changed the atmosphere. “Obviously, an older person taking the class doesn’t really care if they pass or fail,” Mr. Creutzfeldt said. “They’re taking it for the enjoyment, or the desire to learn. It creates a difference in the objective in class. An older person will go on a tangent about something because it’s interesting to them, or they have personal experience with it, while everyone else is just trying to get through the lecture.”

CreditBroadview-Senior Living at Purchase College
CreditBroadview-Senior Living at Purchase College

The Kargers, on the other hand, resist the old-fogey stereotype. They say the whole reason they are moving to Purchase College and not to Miami is that they like to stay up late and party. Mrs. Karger believes that the other residents will be the same — not your parents’ grandparents. “They’re forward thinkers, not the ones to go down to Florida and order the early bird special,” she said.

Other students said they might like having surrogate grandparents on campus. Annie Yang, a senior majoring in economics at the University of Chicago, said she had basically been raised by her grandmother while her parents were working. She said she could see herself living with old people on campus, especially if she got a break on housing fees in return.

“Grannies are my weakness,” she said. “I feel there is a not-trivial population of people like me who have a connection to old people and wouldn’t mind a discount on housing.”

The retirement housing at Purchase, expected to be ready in about three years, will be open to anyone 62 and older; the median age of those who have put down deposits is 77.

The complex will start with about 220 apartments and houses, plus a sprinkling of assisted living and memory-care beds, and can expand to 385 units.

Arizona State University is working on a similar project on its campus in Tempe that is scheduled to open next spring. Its high-rise development of 252 apartments is nearly sold out.

Other schools are following suit. Kendal, a nonprofit organization that supports a network of retirement communities, is in talks with the University of Pennsylvania and another major university about putting retirement housing on their campuses, according to Larry Elveru, a spokesman for Kendal.

Lasell Village, a pioneering retirement community on the campus of Lasell University outside Boston, is providing consulting services to other universities, senior living organizations and developers, said Anne Doyle, the village president, who is a university employee.

Marketing for these projects focuses on the academic angle. Arizona State officials avoid the word retirement, preferring to talk about “independent lifelong learners.” Purchase is calling its development an “intergenerational senior learning community.”

Administrators envision a two-way street, in which older people with experience as doctors, lawyers or musicians become mentors to students, and students use the retirement community as a lab for internship work in, say, gerontology or art therapy.

To encourage cross-generational mingling, Arizona is adopting Ms. Yang’s model, inviting some performing arts students to live at no cost in the same apartment building as the older residents, in exchange for sharing their talents with the residents in some way.

CreditAdriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times
CreditAdriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times
CreditAdriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times

“We thought there was an awful lot to be learned about the aging population in today’s world, and how people want to continue to learn all their lives,” said Todd Hardy, managing director of innovations zones at Arizona State.

At Lasell Village, created in 2000, the residents live in 16 interconnected buildings, like houses on a college campus, that are named after educators like Margaret Mead and John Dewey.

Residents are required to take college classes, with tuition included in their monthly fees. One of the most popular this fall is a social justice class, whose enrollment is half students and half residents. The retirement community, in turn, provides internships and employment for students, as well as income for the university from rent and payment for support services like information technology and security.

“Just from a business perspective, it’s a very strong enterprise,” said Ms. Doyle, the president of the community.

Purchase and Arizona State will give student ID cards to their older residents, and say they are working out the details of how much access to campus amenities the residents will be offered.

At Purchase, residents and students will take short courses together, because research has shown that most retirees had little interest in full-length courses. And a student performance space is being built within the retirement complex.

The New York Legislature approved the long-term lease of state land for the project in 2011, and Purchase College set up a nonprofit organization to develop it with a private operator, at a projected cost of $320 million. Officials are expecting a base of $2 million in annual rental income, to be used to almost double the college’s $1.8 million scholarship fund and to hire new faculty members.

At a recent marketing session for the Purchase project, called Broadview Senior Living, Ashley Wade, the project’s marketing director, gave a hard sell to about 25 potential buyers.

“You don’t have to go to class,” Ms. Wade said. “You just get to go to class.”

Many of the listeners were in sticker shock. The Purchase College “entrance fee” ranges from $595,000 for an apartment to $1,995,000 for a small house; monthly services fees range from $4,300 to $8,700 for one resident and $1,500 more for a second person. When the unit is vacated, 90 percent of the entrance fee is refundable to the residents or their heirs. One-fifth of the units are reserved for people with incomes at or below 80 percent of the median income for Westchester County; for them, the entrance fees start at $250,000.

Prices at Arizona State’s project, called Mirabella, range from the mid-$300,000s to more than $1 million for a penthouse apartment.

Judy Cohen, 82, a retired English teacher, and her husband, Martin, 84, a cardiologist, wondered whether they would be welcomed by the students.

“The students have their own life,” Dr. Cohen said. “I don’t know how many would want to come and sit with. …” As his voice trailed off, his wife picked up the thread: “Old people,” she said. “Let’s put the word out there.”

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