By John L. Gann Jr.
To entice students, universities commonly boast of offering the “biggest,” the “oldest” or some comparable superlative.
Perhaps the campuses that most stand out, though, are those that can claim the ultimate adjective — the “only” — and maintain it for a long time.
Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio, 20 miles north of Columbus, may not immediately come to mind in the superlatives department. But the 1,850-student campus became an “only” more than 20 years ago. Favorable national publicity notwithstanding, it remains one today. OWU runs the only college-affiliated mixed student/faculty/retiree housing facility in the United States. There may be a lesson here for other colleges.
Austin Manor, once a 150-room student residence slated for demolition, is now a four-story, 60-unit age-integrated apartment building home to about equal numbers of students, senior citizen alumni and working professionals plus a dozen faculty.
The mix is intentional — 20 units are reserved for students — and no age group is allowed to resegregate the building. Both student and non-student names appear on long waiting lists to get in.
Of course, private apartment buildings near many campuses nationwide unintentionally house both students and non-students, but usually the only experience the two groups share is writing the rent check every month. And age-restricted retirement developments are found near a number of campuses that have varying levels of attachment to the schools but no student residents.
Austin Manor is, however, a category by itself. It makes unmatriculated residents, who pay $500 to $1,400 monthly for their living units, in effect into honorary students living right on campus. They can daily associate with undergraduates, audit classes, attend theatrical and athletic events, and use campus swimming, exercise and dining facilities — all within walking distance.
Counterintuitively for an academic setting, Austin Manor is the product not of research or planning but of imaginative response to a happy accident.
In 1988, with his official residence not yet ready, incoming president David Warren moved temporarily into a campus dormitory. Studying at Yale, Warren had lived in an apartment building that was home to both students and older non-students. Impressed with both experiences, Warren reinvented a 1923 women’s dormitory as a permanent intergenerational residence.
Scholarly research affirms the benefits to elders of daily association with young people. Frequent contact with older adults who are neither faculty nor doting relatives likewise benefits students, since it is with such people that they will have to interact with successfully once out of school.
But despite this insight from the behavioral sciences, before OWU no college or university had made it apply to any campus housing. And none has since.
It’s not that it hasn’t been popular. Ruth Melvin, a 1932 graduate who lived in the building as a student and later as a retiree, contrasted retirement homes where “people go to die” with Austin Manor where “people come to live.”
For students, in the words of one living in Austin Manor, “there’s only so much information you can get from a class, but these people (older residents) have experienced life.”
Outside the box
In coming years it will be more incumbent than ever for colleges and universities to think outside the traditional academic box, as OWU has done, in putting its resources to productive use.
In many schools, student demand for campus lodging as well as other college services and amenities may well soften. High college costs and the growth of lower-cost distance learning programs that award both credits and degrees to students living anywhere are already starting to change the picture.
But college towns and university neighborhoods will still need people around — students, retirees, visitors or working families — to support their economies. Retirement experiences in mixed-age settings are just one innovation colleges make possible that can help accomplish that.
Will we need to hope for more happy accidents like the origin of Austin Manor? Or can college and college town leaders find other ways to achieve innovative economic value? Those colleges and college towns are likely to do best that can make themselves into something special when a leafy four-year sanctuary for educating young people is no longer special enough.
— Austin Manor is among anecdotes about what colleges and college towns are doing, or could be doing, to strengthen and diversify their local economies included in John L. Gann’s book, “The Third Lifetime Place: A New Economic Opportunity for College Towns.” Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org