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Back to School: Retirement in a College Town

Apr 13, 2012
Back to School: Retirement in a College Town

By Wolf Saar, Director of Practice, VIA Architecture
Photo: Cannon River, Northfield, MN

Retirement in a college town is a growing trend among seniors. As AP journalist Carole Feldman writes in her article More Retirees Head Back To College Towns“College is not just for the young. With many people seeking a retirement that is culturally active and intellectually stimulating, colleges and universities are working to bring retirees to their campuses and towns, offering them free or reduced-rate classes, artistic performances or lectures.”  This is an enticing prospect to ponder, particularly because Pullman, Washington, home to Washington State University, is on MSN.com Real Estate’s list of top college towns for adults. Proximity to a college environment provides access to intellectual opportunities, arts, and culture. A smaller community can offer greater public safety and a livable, walkable environment easier to afford than in a large urban center.

The Pacific Northwest abounds with smaller communities that contain major higher education institutions. Besides Pullman, Ellensburg, two hours east of Seattle, is home to Central Washington University; Eastern Washington University is in Cheney (near Spokane); and Western Washington University is in Bellingham in northwest Washington. Oregon’s largest public universities are in the smaller communities of Eugene and Corvallis, and Kelowna is home to the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus. Community colleges and private institutions expand this list of institutions that reside in smaller communities. Most of these institutions offer persons 65 and older tuition and fee waivers for auditing classes, a wonderful opportunity to expand knowledge, interact with people of all ages, and continue to participate and grow. But, this is merely the tip of the iceberg of what a college town offers.

Each college and department within the university routinely sponsors lectures, presentations, and events outside of the day-to-day curriculum. This provides a depth and richness of experience not always available in smaller communities. WSU’s School of Communications hosts the annual Murrow Symposium, which includes an annual lifetime achievement award; this year’s recipient is Dan Rather who will speak at the symposium this September in Pullman. Besides drawing leaders in their fields, college campuses draw world-renowned cultural events either directly or through other organizations in the community. Theater, music, concerts, as well as exhibitions of art and culture are all part of college life.

Being smaller towns, college communities tend to be walkable and affordable, catering to the limited budgets of students. Due to the demands of a student population, the amenities that a college town draws are often more extensive than a similarly-sized community that doesn’t need to cater to those needs. Businesses that would normally only be able to justify their existence in a larger population center can prosper in a smaller college community. Even though these are relatively compact communities, transit is typically available and robust, therefore reducing the need for a car on a daily basis. Diverse and interesting restaurants are typical of the college town and generally provide a range of choice that spans from fast food to five-star restaurants.

The fact that universities, by virtue of their connectedness to the world, demand ready access to transportation usually results in good airline, bus, or rail access, facilitating both travel from the community and access for out-of-town family and friends. This is of major importance to the active senior. This connectedness, as well as the student population itself, usually supports ample health facilities. Some universities even include medical research institutions within the campus, although none is as remote as to not provide ready access to the most sophisticated health care available in nearby urban centers.

Downtown Northfield, MN

So how does college town retirement really look? A few years ago I managed the design and execution of a project in Northfield, Minnesota that focused on creating a condominium community for persons aged 55 and over within a college town. Northfield is home to both Carleton College and St. Olaf College, two renowned private liberal arts colleges. Situated just 30 minutes south of Minneapolis/St. Paul, the community is home to about 20,000 permanent residents. Located along the banks of the Cannon River, Northfield, like many other communities in Minnesota, was a flour milling town, and still boasts the large Malt-O-Meal plant you pass as you enter town from the west.

St. Olaf College, Northfield, MN

It’s a quiet, mid-western town with a Main Street, tree-lined neighborhoods, and a small town atmosphere. This environment is energized by activities associated with the colleges, including concerts by the famous St Olaf Choir. This rich, intellectually stimulating environment has grown a remarkable organization focused on seniors.

In the spirit of “life-long learning,” the Cannon Valley Elder Collegium provides high-quality academic experiences in the humanities for students over age fifty. The faculty members of the Collegium, predominantly retirees themselves, include emeriti faculty from the colleges and retired public school teachers. The focus on “life-long learning” has led to the development of course offerings selected from the liberal arts. A curriculum to challenge participants with serious academic course work is offered to participants and is based upon the personal favorite courses of the instructors, developed during life-long teaching careers. Most courses have a seminar format with learners participating in research and dialogue. There are no prerequisites and previous formal education is not a requirement. Collaborative leadership is encouraged — all participants (faculty and students) have opportunities to take part in forming policy, deciding course offerings, selecting instructors, and evaluating courses.

Cannon Valley Elder Collegium

At the Village on the Cannon, the community includes a library as the focal point as one enters, study carrels, large tables for collaboration, and a large multi-purpose designed as a lecture classroom. These amenities mirror the facilities available at the local colleges and provide the spaces to support the pursuit of learning. Several of the residents are retired teachers and professors, adding to the richness of the community.

Intellectual stimulation keeps us healthier, more connected, active, and feeling relevant as we advance in years. The stimulation goes both ways. The interaction with a university or college provides mutual inter-generational learning opportunities. Although my own son attended community college classes in the midst of “urban” Seattle, he would come back with great stories about his conversations with students in his classes who were in their sixties. As fellow students, elders provided a frame of reference that he had not previously experienced in an academic environment.

As an architect who more recently has been designing communities for seniors in need of assisted living, my pondering goes to the stage of life where an active senior needs more assistance and care. What happens when being a physically “active” senior is no longer possible? Turning back to the example of Northfield, a virtual continuing care retirement community was created by co-locating an assisted living community next to the seniors’ condominium community. This came about through negotiations between the for-profit developer of the Village and the not-for-profit developer of Millstream Commons, the assisted living community. Three Links (a part of the Oddfellows organization) purchased a parcel of land from Collegeville Communities, the developer of the Village. Three Links engaged the same team to design and execute the assisted living community, and we were able to provide such elements as shared access, walkable linkages between the buildings, and ability for the two separate properties to connect. The Cannon Valley Elder Collegium serves Millstream Commons as well as Three Links independent and skilled care communities located elsewhere in Northfield.

Millstream Commons

As established livable, walkable, and sustainable communities, college towns offer up those great attributes that we seek and treasure in our urban centers. They are quieter and offer safety and affordability not always attainable in an urban context, while providing plentiful and robust cultural and intellectual opportunities. The stimulation and interaction so vital to aging successfully in community exists in these places and provides an alternative that is sure to continue to attract seniors back to our college towns.

One Comment

  1. Hello,

    Nice post. Retirement communities living offers the ideal solution. It can be in an apartment block, in a housing enclave. These residents enjoy the comfort and privacy of their own room. I am really thankful to you for providing this unique information. Please keep sharing more and more information…