For Retirees, the Allure of College Towns

Why some retirees prefer bricks and ivy to sand and putting greens.

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Not everyone loves hitting the links. And, as relaxing as surf sounds can be, even they become commonplace after awhile. Active retirees and seniors, many blessed with longer life expectancies than their parents, want a combination of recreation, socialization, and intellectual stimulation in their golden years.

They're finding it in college towns, mixing with 20-year-old undergrads and 25-year-old doctoral candidates, professors, researchers, and plenty of their peers. The trend started in the mid-1990s, according to real estate and aging experts, and shows few signs of stopping, especially as more baby boomers hit retirement age.

[See 10 Best Places for Lifelong Learning.]

In many ways, students and seniors favor similar amenities: cheap and diverse food, moderately priced and right-sized housing, and access to good transportation. Plus, teaching-hospital affiliations bring the vital convenience of cutting-edge healthcare right to the edge of campus.

"University communities have a higher percentage of people with bachelor's degrees or more and per-capita income tends to be higher," says Gary Abney, an agent at Prudential Don Foster Realtors and Chair of the Board of Regents for Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, Ky.

Retirees in Richmond take advantage of the university's library, gym, a performing arts center, and an international film series. The school's Division of Continuing Education and Outreach offers some 120 courses ranging from writing to genealogy to American Sign Language. The school is invested in its community; individuals age 65 or older are entitled to enroll in community education classes for a small processing fee because of O'Donnell Scholarship funding.

Other tuition breaks are available around the country. For example, adults 62 and older are eligible for tuition waivers at any Connecticut public college or university in the state, including the University of Connecticut, Connecticut State University, and the 12 community colleges. Generally, waivers are available only when space exists at the end of a registration period. Other fees, and costs for books and supplies, are not waived. Many other states operate under similar rules.

[See How Retirees Can Attend College for Free.]

Do your research. Retirees do face trade-offs in college towns, says Jay Butler, professor emeritus in real estate at the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University in Tempe. Major university-affiliated medical centers will tend to be in slightly larger locales where retirees and seniors will have to contend with population congestion, but they will also have more public transportation options. Arizona State is part of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute's 117 university-affiliated programs, offering lectures, short courses, and workshops.

These types of programs also encourage university professors to remain in town for their own retirements, says Butler. Osher courses are taught by ASU faculty, emeritus faculty, and community scholars.

The economic stability associated with higher learning institutions has helped college real estate markets hold up relatively well during the national housing slide, allowing retirees to retain a greater percentage of home equity than the national norm. Still, generally lower prices in this setting, as with much of the rest of the country, make for a buyers' market. That's attractive to the newly retired or others living on less income than they once did.

"I think that college towns are very fortunate in that they are a little insulated, which is particularly true of the Research Triangle Park area [of Raleigh-Durham, N.C.]," says Marybeth Dennett, an agent with Triangle Star Realty in Durham. "We have the extreme good fortune of having so many colleges [the University of North Carolina, North Carolina State University and Duke University] within miles of each other. It has kept us on a plateau, while others have dipped into valleys."