The couple facing retirement, a longtime corporate executive and his wife, were deciding where they would spend their golden years. They wanted a place where they could enjoy the third stage of life while they were still the “young old”– vibrant and active and engaged –- but also where they could ease into assisted living if and when needed.
The single mom was leaving behind her homemaker role in the leafy suburbs of a big city after a nasty divorce and needed to start over, supporting herself in a new place where she could set up a business as a professional baker.
These people, like many other Americans, decided to move to college towns.
The retired couple were well off and could have lived almost anywhere, but they chose to return to the town surrounding the large state university where they had met and fallen in love decades earlier. They bought a comfortable condo near campus in an upscale development specially designed for alumni, with organized links to the university for cultural and educational opportunities and health care later in life.
The single mom chose a much smaller college town where she had never lived in or gone to school. She knew only a couple of people there, but had a good impression of the school and town from attending cultural events in the area on summer vacations. She figured she could afford to rent an apartment big enough to accommodate her baking business, and she could find customers from both the town and the campus.
Retired or still working, renters or buyers, alumni of that school or not, people are discovering the benefits of escaping to a college town – which we’ll define as a town that is commonly associated with a specific institution of higher learning. It doesn’t need to be a truly small town like Waterville, Maine (population 16,000), which is intertwined in so many ways with Colby College. Big cities are not college towns: nobody would say New York City is a college town, even though it has more than 100 colleges and universities. But even small or medium-sized cities can be college towns, such as Madison, Wisconsin (population 270,000) and Ann Arbor, Michigan (120,000).
People are drawn to college towns for a number of reasons. They often offer attractive living options, especially in affordability and walkability. Being able to stroll to the nearest coffee shop or art gallery or pickleball court is a dream for many who are tired of getting in a car or on a train to go anywhere.
Many people moving to college towns cite the cultural, educational and entertainment opportunities. The couple who retired near their old college campus regarded themselves as lifelong learners, and often attended non-credit classes specially set up in conjunction with the university. Classes were led by active or retired professors, sometimes in the same classrooms where the couple had gone to school many years before. They played golf on the university course, and attended football games in the same stadium where they had their first date as sophomores.
The single mom, despite no formal links to the college, joined a program allowing town residents to audit specific courses alongside students. Between classes and her baking business, she quickly developed a brimming social circle. She often attended arts events, especially dance and musical theater. She went to lectures in small spaces featuring famous speakers she wouldn’t have been able to afford to see in the big city. She began dating, and met a guy.
Many people are drawn by the diversity of a college town — people of all ages from different countries and ethnic backgrounds. A college town has a fluid population that is typically ready and open to meeting new people and getting to know them. Some older people, like the retired couple, found they were becoming friendly with more young people, and that was invigorating.
Given their diversity and international influences, college towns may have a wider range of restaurants than many large towns or big-city suburbs. And those restaurants are often within walking distance or a brief drive away. Some college towns have convenient buses or trollies that ferry people over short rides to and from campus or downtown areas. Some shops offer discounts to people associated with campus. And with all those students available for part-time jobs, there are usually plenty of delivery people if you don’t want to go out to get your pizza.
College towns often need workers, and it may be easier to find a job, especially part-time. The retired corporate executive found he easily could have hired himself out to professors, students and alums as a consultant for their startups; but he didn’t need the work or want the commitment, so he instead volunteered his expertise to people and projects he believed in.
The single mom’s baking business boomed, thanks to a good website, some clever local marketing and positive word of mouth. She showed her face — and her cakes and tarts and cookies — at the weekly weekend farmers market, and let it be known that she would bake for weddings and other events. She became a campus staple for parents, putting together care packages of baked delicacies and then delivering them to the kids in the dorms. Before long, students were ordering baskets for each other to mark birthdays or other celebrations.
Financially, the range of options is as wide as the gap between the Ivy League and the small state school in the rural Midwest, from the grand house on the hill to the tiny rental usually taken up by students. Some college towns feature dedicated senior living for alums, often in upscale developments. Some of those developments try to maintain a minimum percentage of alumni as residents, although that can range from 10% to 90%.
Some senior developments, whether formally linked to a college or not, may require a big up-front payment before moving in – range from under $100,000 to more than $1 million.
Living units are typically sold or rented at the local market rate — which is often a bargain in a small town. Buyers can be reassured by the relative stability of housing near campuses; there’s often a steady turnover, and the steady demand near the campus means it’s less likely prices will plummet or the area will become rundown.
Beyond all the practical reasons, some people — like the retired couple — want to return to campus in order to reclaim or relive or at least remember their glory days, when they were young and carefree. It’s never the same, of course, but sometimes it’s close enough that the memories and old emotions stir new ones almost every day.
Naturally, some people move to college towns and find they made a mistake. Maybe they miss the bright lights. Maybe they miss their old friends and aren’t good at making new ones. Maybe the traffic near campus is as bad as rush hour in the city. Maybe they don’t like rowdy crowds of young people having loud parties or loud talking on streets or in shops.
But the downsides of a college town are something that can be explored before moving — and avoided with a little due diligence. If you’re considering this kind of move, visit the town and the campus. Explore the opportunities and costs. Talk to real estate agents, and spend time there — day and night, weekday and weekend, when school is in session or on break — and see what it’s like. Talk to neighbors.
For the retired couple and the single mom, all friends of mine, their moves to college towns worked out well. The retired couple spent several happy years in the senior condo development near campus, staying involved and active until they needed to move to assisted living.
The single mom’s professional and personal life flourished for several years in her rental apartment, until she decided to buy a place that was even closer to campus and could still accommodate the expansive counter space, pantry, fridges, freezers, ovens and other appliances needed for her banking business.
For my friends, going back to college led to a new degree — one of great satisfaction.
This article is reprinted by permission from The Escape Home, a newsletter for second homeowners and those who want to be. Subscribe here. © 2023. All rights reserved.