Don and Joyce Parker whip out their IDs whenever they want to use Oberlin College’s fitness center or library.
The Parkers live in what's called a "university-based retirement community," or UBRC. The communities have been around for years, catering to the "Silent Generation." Now, they’re making a play for boomers, the best-educated group in American history and a natural fit for a quasi-return to campus life.
That’s according to Andrew Carle, the executive-in-residence in the Senior Housing Administration Department at George Mason University, who coined the term “university-based retirement communities.”
Their Number Is Expected to Double
Carle says roughly 100 of these communities have established relationships with colleges, a number he expects to double within the next decade. About half the schools incorporate the older residents into their campuses; the other half provide a connection or affiliation. The nonprofit Kendal Corporation is perhaps the country's best-known promoter of UBRCs, working to help developers and colleges collaborate.
Some of the best examples, in addition to Oberlin, are Green Hills Retirement Community near Iowa State University, Meadowood Retirement Community near Indiana University and Oak Hammock at the University of Florida. All are within five miles of campus and offer course auditing and use of campus facilities.
Falling in Love With a College Town
When the Parkers discovered Kendal at Oberlin five years ago, they immediately fell in love with the town and with the school's offerings. They routinely bike or walk the three blocks to campus to enjoy concerts and lectures.
A retired physician, Don serves on a horticulture committee and paints while Joyce volunteers at different projects or works on her pottery in Oberlin College’s art department.
"The best URBCs give you a student ID and let you go to the bookstore and get a discount, register for classes, use it at the campus eateries and use the athletic facilities," Carle says. "It depends on what the senior community has brokered."
Carle notes that typically college-educated retirees, including retired faculty members, have an interest in these communities. But this housing option also attracts older people simply interested in learning and staying active.
Being an alumnus is never a requirement, and most URBC residents' ties to the college may not be strong. At Oberlin's retirement village of roughly 400 residents, for instance, only 37 percent earned degrees from the school.
The university-affiliated centers are, in general, no more costly than other retirement communities, typically charging $1,500 to $3,000 a month, Carle says.
Sizing Up a College-Based Retirement Community
Is a UBRC for you? Barbara Thomas, CEO of Kendal at Oberlin, says some people come in to her facility with a 30-point spreadsheet comparing communities. To her, the key is whether a retiree likes the culture and people there.
"Are these people you want to have dinner with? Do you like the town the community is in?" she asks.
To scope out the area around a UBRC, check to see if it has entertainment venues, such as a performing arts center or athletic competitions you’d want to watch, in addition to your ability to audit courses and use the school's facilities. And you may want to see if it’s accredited through the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities.
Not all programs are created alike, Carle says, and potential residents should closely study how well the community's residents are integrated with the college.
Before committing, he warns: "People need to do their homework."
Frank Jossi is a journalist who writes about business, politics and cultural issues.
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