Some universities figure out a creative approach to demographics

The American population is aging.  This much is thoroughly established in research, and awareness of it is gradually working through society.  The demographic transformation offers a special challenge for colleges and universities, to the extent that they rely on teenagers for students.

For years I’ve been calling for higher education to respond to this shift.  In particular I have forecast campuses pivoting to serve retirees. Finally we’re seeing some responses.

Case in point: Arizona State University, that hive of innovation and innovation, has broken ground on its Mirabella complex.  This seems to be a senior living facility (“senior” as in “over-65”) located on campus.  It won’t be an isolated pocket of town amidst gown; instead, Mirabella will be fully integrated with the ASU community.  As Inside Higher Ed puts it,

residents will be able to take classes, make use of campus facilities such as the library with university-issued ID cards and immerse themselves in university life as much, or as little, as they like. They’ll also be encouraged to mentor and build relationships with younger students.

ASU Mirabella Model

While they don’t need degrees or certificates to show to future employers, many retirees do want to keep learning and feel engaged, [Todd Hardy, managing director of innovation zones at ASU] said.

“We want these residents to be part of our community and to be fully integrated into everything we do,” Hardy said “We’d like them to be guest lecturers, advise us on start-up companies, be docents at our art gallery and performance hall…”

Mirabella residents could even help shape academic programs and research at ASU, he said. Areas of collaboration might include art therapy, Alzheimer’s treatment, nursing and online education. ASU is even considering whether students could work with Mirabella residents as part of their coursework.

The advantages for Mirabellians are immense: connection to an exciting campus, the chance to keep learning, to connect with other people, to teach.   For ASU, this is an opportunity to further grow its student body and staff numbers. Think about the possibilities for teachers in training to teach a new population or for storytellers to work with retirees.

Further, as Future Trends Forum guest Aria Chernik notes:

Arizona State is not alone in welcoming seniors into its communitu, but does seem to be carving out a new way of doing so.  Lindsay McKensie identifies other examples:

While some of these retirement communities may lease or buy college-owned land, such as Kendal at Oberlin, which has close ties to Oberlin College in northern Ohio, and Vi at Palo Alto near Stanford University, very few are actually situated on a campus, she said. Some communities, such as Oak Hammock at the University of Florida or University Commons at the University of Michigan, have deep connections to the universities and were even founded by former faculty. But neither community is directly managed by the universities.

I’ve seen similar communities near several of my client campuses.  In addition,

The National Resource Center for Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes — a network offering lifelong learning opportunities to senior citizens — is based at Northwestern. The 122, soon to be 123, college and university-based institutes offer noncredit courses for affordable prices. These courses “are not generally cash cows,” said [Seth Meisel, associate dean of academic affairs at Northwestern University]. But the network is growing and is popular with older learners. “There is an influx of retired people looking for meaning and purpose and engagement in their lives,” he said.

I can push on the economics of this story a bit further.  For one, these sites are clearly intended for affluent seniors, if Mirabella is anything to go by:

Residents pay a “buy-in” fee starting at $378,500 for a one-bedroom unit and up to $810,200 for a two-bedroom penthouse. Residents also pay a monthly fee of between $4,195 and $5,570.

Some Inside Higher Ed commentators focused on this, at times archly.  Retiring in Arizona can be awfully expensive, apparently, so this does fit the local context.  It seems that ASU’s strategy takes advantage of the confluence of several trends, namely the demographics of aging and the macroeconomics of rising income inequality (here, the aspect of escalating wealth at the top of society).  Mirabella also depends on the connection between academic achievement, or at least academic interest, and wealth.   It looks like a sound strategy for the long term.

On the flip side, given rising inequality, what is the role of low income seniors in this story?  I wonder how many more 65+ people will seek to work at colleges and universities in order to expand their budgets, if they lack enough savings to live well.  Some are, of course, too poor to live at all without a new income.  There is no way for them to afford a Mirabella plan, so how can they access higher ed, and how can campuses connect with them?  Perhaps some colleges will offer low-cost, on-site housing for seniors that otherwise resembles ASU’s project, complete with access to classes, libraries, community, etc.  Other institutions may just trust to commuting, especially in urban areas with public transit, welcoming seniors when they arrive on campus from wherever they live.

On a related note, I am also struck by the emerging phenomenon of seniors living in RVs to support a nomadic work experience as well as those faced with the option of living in vans.*  Will a college or university provide a camping site for such seniors’ vehicles?  That’s very inexpensive to provide, and might meet a population where they are (or where they travel).

Overall, keep an eye on this trend.  Recall the other examples mentioned above, from California to Florida to Ohio.  We can expand more instances and further experimentation with format.

I’m very glad to see one of my forecasts starting to bear fruit.

*This van/car/RV trend is a good example of why I pay attention not only to emerging tech (self-driving cars) but to the persistence of old tech (20th-century automobiles). Again, the story of the future is often one of multiple trends and layers imbricated on top of each other.

(thanks to Linda Burns for help with this post)

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4 Responses to Some universities figure out a creative approach to demographics

  1. Dahn Shaulis says:

    Education should cover the life course. But why don’t elite schools and flagship universities do more to improve the “savage inequalities” in the K-12 pipeline? Shouldn’t they also do more to help middle-aged people get skills they need to stay in the workforce, since community colleges are so poor funded?

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Good questions, Dahn.
      What keeps the elites from doing that?
      One answer is exclusivity, essential to their identity.

  2. Chad says:

    Regis College in Weston, MA had plans to do something similar to ASU, but the local town fought them so hard and so long they had to give it up.

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