Why Senior Living Should Ask More of University Partners

If senior living providers want to work with universities, they’re going to have to offer something of value — but they should ask for something in return, too.

That’s according to Andrew Carle, a senior living consultant and former COO of Affinity Living. Carle knows a thing or two about senior living and academia, as he was the founding director of George Mason University’s senior housing program. Today, he has his sights set on an even bigger goal: Carle is working with Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. on a graduate-level senior housing program aimed at giving students the skills to take on high-level field or corporate leadership positions once they graduate.

Carle is set to talk about how universities and senior living providers can collaborate at the upcoming Senior Housing News BUILD conference in Chicago on May 8. In advance of this event, SHN caught up with Carle to learn more about his new efforts at Georgetown, and senior living and college campus affiliations.


SHN: You joined Georgetown a couple months ago, and you’re working on creating some graduate-level curricula. Give me an overview of this effort and talk about the thinking behind it.

Carle: In the case of Georgetown, what we’re trying to do is elevate curricula in the field. We invested almost 20 years at George Mason University, which we still think is the model for undergraduate curricula for the field. We have hundreds of alums out there who are very successful, so I think there’s evidence to suggest we pulled that off. I had backed off from full-time faculty a couple years ago and really had been working on my consulting practice and serving as an adjunct.

But there was an opportunity that Georgetown created just this year, a new master’s degree in aging and health. It’s their first master’s degree targeted to the aging population field. If a premiere academic institution like Georgetown thinks this is large enough to warrant its own curricula, that should send a message to lots of other academic institutions, as well as to the industry, that we’re ready to take the next step.


Can you talk about the need for more senior living college courses? Are colleges keeping up with that need?

Senior living is a major U.S. industry, and it’s time we see some acknowledgement of that. Argentum just came out with an economic impact report. We’ve got 1.6 million workers, and senior living has a larger economic impact on the U.S. economy than the auto manufacturing or the air transportation or the hotel and motel industries. And this is an industry that is projected to double in size again in the next two to three decades.

If you want to hire an accountant, you hire someone with an accounting degree. I think that if someone in the senior living industry wants to hire a senior living executive, they shouldn’t have to settle for someone who hasn’t studied the field or studied something tangentially related to it.

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The academic institutions traditionally have been offering curricula in nursing home administration. We have an entire industry that literally exists because of tens of millions of older adults and their families who have been attempting to avoid nursing homes for the past 30 years. And if that’s not enough, it’s against regulations in every state to house residents that require 24-hour skilled nursing care in an assisted living community. So, it doesn’t make sense to focus academic coursework on the very thing that consumers have said they don’t want and regulators have said you can’t provide. Yet, when we turn to the academic institutions, in many cases, all we’re finding are these decades-old curricula in nursing home administration.

I want to be clear here, we need more nursing home administrators, and nursing homes play a very important role in our society. But they are not senior living.

Let’s talk about senior living and college campus affiliations and university-based retirement communities (UBRCs). Do you see these trends gaining steam?

First of all, from an academic standpoint, I think there’s some synergy in having the UBRC. If you have an academic curricula in senior living administration, it would be pretty nice to have a retirement community affiliated with you.

On a larger scale, the senior living industry is very interested in UBRCs. But there are enormous barriers to entry that they’ve been encountering for many years and continue to encounter. You have organizations that come from two completely different worlds. You’ve got providers who are primarily for-profit and whose primary customers are 80 years old working with large, bureaucratic, state government-run universities whose primary consumers are 20 years old.

So, you can’t find two organizations that are more different, unfortunately. They speak a different language. That’s been the real barrier to entry. It makes it difficult to figure out how to structure the relationship.

It just takes so long for a university to make a decision on something like this. I’ve had seniors living CEOs say to me, I’d love to do a UBRC, but in the time it takes to even make the time to meet with us, I could have built three other communities somewhere else. A lot of it has to do with the timing and just the ability to be patient. Not a lot of providers can wait that long to build something.

If you can do it, if you do have the patience, if you want to invest for the long-run, strategically it’s about the best move you can make. These are by far the most complicated models to build.

You’ve talked about how campus affiliations and UBRCs can help foster intergenerational living and help attract baby boomers. Can you elaborate on that?

I’m dead smack in the middle of the baby boomers, so I’ve lived this. Baby boomers, if you break down all of the surveys and studies, they want three things in their retirement. They want active, they want intellectually stimulating, and they want intergenerational. They do not want to live on what I call an elderly island. We’ve built a lot of really beautiful communities that are separated from the rest of society. And a bird in a gilded cage is still in a cage.

So, if you think about those three factors, I’ve basically just described a college campus. We also know the baby boomers are the highest educated demographic in history, up until this current generation. We all went to college. We aren’t interested in sleepy retirements on top of a mountain looking at a beautiful view. We want to be engaged and we want to be around young people.

Do you have any tips on how senior living providers can position themselves to work with universities?

It’s actually the reverse. The senior living industry needs to be prepared to stand up to universities, or at least make it very clear to them, what we expect from curricula. The senior living industry should not just accept whatever the university has to offer, either because they didn’t know or didn’t want to change.

The senior living industry needs to be very clear, we expect curricula specific to our field. It’s been done, it’s been proven, and if you want us to write you a check, you need to step up on your side and provide the curricula we really need, and we’ll work with you on it.

The universities then also have to make some demands on the senior living industry, which is, if we do that, you need to have a career path for these people as they graduate. We haven’t had that. So, there’s a need on both sides to really take it to the next level. They both need to come together and do better. If we create the curricula, then it’s incumbent on the industry to have jobs.

It’s very hard to tell someone to spend four or six years studying something when they could have gotten a job offer in another field with decent pay. And you’re telling them, no, you have to come into senior living, start low and work your way up. Well, that’s going to drive some people away.

So you’re saying that the industry needs to offer more meaningful career paths that don’t require starting at the bottom every time.

Yes. I did this at Mason, and we were successful. But early on, my students were being offered part-time jobs on the weekend answering the phone in the lobby for eight bucks an hour. How do you tell your parents you just spent four years in college and that’s what you’re going to do?

A lot of them did it because I told them to, because I told them they’d move up very quickly, and they did. But they shouldn’t have been forced into that situation. They should have the opportunity to get a kind of salary that a person who’s worked hard for years and gotten a bachelor’s degree deserves. Same with the master’s level. If we’re going to have people graduating from Georgetown University with a master’s in aging and a concentration in senior living administration, these are going to be some of the top graduate students in the country. They need to have an opportunity to access the field.

We’re working with some providers, especially the life plan communities, which are larger, have larger operating budgets. They can bring you in as an assistant administrator with a one- or two-year training program. But there’s only a handful of those opportunities in the country right now, and there needs to be more.
Interested in learning more about university-based retirement communities or partnerships between colleges and senior living companies? Attend the Senior Housing News BUILD conference in Chicago on May 8.

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