Where You'll Live
If your idea of retirement is expanding your horizons, where better than in a college town?
By Tara Kalwarski

(MONEY Magazine) – Until recently, anyone over 60 spotted around a university campus was presumed to be either a professor or an aging alum riding a nostalgia trip. But walk the streets of almost any college town these days and you'll see that the demographic landscape has changed: Seniors by the score are now mixed in among the dewy coeds, attending classes, queuing up for cultural offerings and just soaking up the energy. It shouldn't come as a surprise. For a large number of retirees, easy access to cultural events and educational opportunities has always been at least as important as year-round sunshine and well-groomed golf courses. And a collegiate environment has even more appeal in the new era of retirement, in which it's increasingly important to continue expanding your skills and knowledge base well beyond traditional retirement age. Many universities have responded by creating academic courses specifically for seniors. A decade ago, only a few dozen colleges offered such programs; today more than 300 institutions do. Other schools allow seniors to audit classes at little or no cost, fund community programs for older folks and even build housing for them.

That's the reason we focused this year's search for the Best Places to Retire on college towns. To come up with our list, we looked for vibrant college-centered communities that also offer at least some of the important attributes of traditional retirement havens, like a reasonable cost of living, lower-than-average taxes and access to topnotch medical care. We passed over some much beloved college towns in favor of relatively undiscovered ones, not just because you'll have no problem thinking of the Madisons, Boulders and Berkeleys yourselves but also because your retirement dollars will tend to stretch further in less-well-known spots. After our initial research narrowed the field, we visited each town on the shortlist to assess educational opportunities available to seniors, check out the local cultural and recreational highlights, and most important, get the insider view from recent arrivals who'd already chosen to make these locales their retirement home. Here are our favorites.

Ashland, Ore.

POP. 20,755 TYPICAL THREE-BEDROOM HOUSE: $500K TWO-BEDROOM CONDO: $350K CONTACT: Learning in Retirement (800-257-0577)

+ PROS Year-round professional theater - CONS Relatively pricey housing

On a recent Tuesday morning, more than a dozen students took their seats for "Lifescript: Considering and Creating Dramatic Monologues," one of 36 classes offered this fall by Southern Oregon University's Learning in Retirement (SOLIR) program. Too bad class is only 90 minutes long, laments the instructor, playwright and poet Dori Appel. "Just when we get warmed up, the bell will ring and it'll be time for recess," she jokes.

But who has time for recess? "There's always so much going on here," says Marshall Umpleby, 72, a retired high school English teacher who moved from California five years ago. Today he's taking a class called "Chess: Its Intrinsic Beauty" while his wife Mimi goes on a geological tour to nearby Mount Ashland. Seniors can take unlimited SOLIR classes for $100 a semester and audit university classes for free.

The Umplebys discovered Ashland while in town for the renowned Oregon Shakespeare Festival, now in its 70th year, which puts on some 700 repertory performances a year. Others are drawn by the outdoors: a huge network of hiking trails that you can access from downtown's Lithia Park, views of the surrounding hills and easy day trips to the Pacific Ocean, Crater Lake or the Rogue River.

While Ashland Community Hospital is a modest facility, with 70 doctors on staff, Rogue Valley Medical Center in nearby Medford is one of the largest in the region and boasts a top cardiovascular unit.

If there's a downside to Ashland, it's the relatively expensive housing. The median home costs $349,000, and nice houses downtown can run $500,000. But relatively is the key term: Comparable homes in the San Francisco Bay Area, where many new arrivals hail from, could easily cost twice as much.

Las Cruces, N.M.

POP. 79,500 TYPICAL THREE-BEDROOM HOUSE: $200K TWO-BEDROOM CONDO: $140K CONTACT: Academy for Learning in Retirement (505-522-7654)

+ PROS Great weather and topography - CONS Limited restaurant scene

For folks who retire to Las Cruces, the city's obvious selling points--the breathtaking Organ Mountains, the New Mexico State University-sponsored cultural scene and two state-of-the-art hospitals--are almost an afterthought. What makes Las Cruces special, they say, is the genuine hospitality among transplants and locals alike. "We kept saying 'Why are people so nice here?' " says Dinny Bomberg, a retiree from Minneapolis. "We decided it's because life here is pretty stress-free." Inexpensive housing and almost 300 days of sunshine a year don't hurt either.

The advantages haven't gone unnoticed: Las Cruces has boomed over the past 10 years. Still, prices have stayed modest: New houses in a southwestern faux adobe style start around $200,000, while existing stock usually costs less. The town hasn't surrendered to sprawl. Decades of neglect have left the downtown section looking haggard, but it's now scheduled for a face-lift that includes restoration of a historic theater.

NMSU is the center of most local entertainment, from gallery talks to college football to a recent mariachi conference. Classes are available to seniors at a deep discount and end up costing about $130 a semester. Retired faculty members help run a wide-ranging lecture series known as the Academy of Learning in Retirement.

Iowa City, Iowa

POP. 62,220 TYPICAL THREE-BEDROOM HOUSE: $250K TWO-BEDROOM CONDO: $175K CONTACT: Senior College (800-469-2586)

+ PROS Cultural vibe, medical facilities - CONS Severe weather and high taxes

Iowa City's roots as a literary and cultural haven run so deep that they're literally embedded in the sidewalks: The city's lively downtown shopping district is home to Literary Walk, a series of bronze panels set in the pavement featuring quotations by the many well-known poets, novelists, journalists and playwrights who have called Iowa City home. Between the 12,000-piece collection at the University of Iowa Museum of Art, an annual Jazz Festival, five live theaters, readings (often by nationally renowned authors drawn by U of I's acclaimed Writers' Workshop), dance recitals and concerts, "no one ever says they are bored here," says Jo Hensch, 68, who retired to Iowa City from South Carolina five years ago with her husband Howard.

For those who want to be more than just observers, there are plenty of hands-on educational opportunities as well. For $30, seniors can take a class at the Senior College, where retired professors teach everything from philosophy to digital photography. There are also dozens of low- or no-cost classes, clubs and lectures at the 25,000-square-foot Senior Center next to the downtown pedestrian mall.

Despite all the emphasis on the life of the mind, the vibe is midwestern-friendly, not snooty. "Everyone is warm and welcoming," says Hensch. Proximity to the U of I offers more than just clubs and classes; its hospital provides some of the best medical care in the region, and the Big Ten sports teams draw fans of every age. The severe weather may be less of a thrill, though many retirees say they love the four distinct seasons. State taxes--a hefty 9% top income tax bracket and 5% sales tax--are on the high side, but the overall low cost of living in the nation's breadbasket easily makes up for it.

Brunswick, Maine

POP. 21,800 TYPICAL THREE-BEDROOM HOUSE: $230K TWO-BEDROOM CONDO: $275K CONTACT: Bowdoin Friends (207-725-3253)

+ PROS Free classes, classically New England - CONS Above-average taxes, cold winters

A classic New England fishing village that's also home to Bowdoin, a 207-year-old, top-ranking liberal arts college, Brunswick is picturesque but not isolated, bustling but not hectic. Independently owned restaurants, galleries and shops line "Maine Street," while the quiet coastline offers summer boating. Festivals, farmer's markets and, in winter, skating take place on The Mall, a village green complete with a trolley-car hot dog stand. A few miles down the road, a shopping center complex offers the necessary Wal-Mart and Starbucks.

Bob Morrison, 76, and his wife Nesta, 71, chose to retire near Bob's alma mater because, having spent four decades in teaching jobs around the world, the couple wanted to remain in a learning environment. They found it with Bowdoin Friends, a group offering full access to the college's lectures, concerts, readings and sporting events. Annual membership costs just $55 a couple. And like all Brunswick locals, they can audit classes for free.

These perks come at a price. January in Brunswick chills to an average low of 12°F, and the town typically sees 70 inches of snow each year. State income taxes top out at a steep 8.5% and sales tax another 5%, but the cost of living--and real estate--is significantly less than in comparable New England college hamlets. Good medical care is nearby: The area has two hospitals, and Maine Medical Center, the state's premier facility, is 30 minutes away in Portland. "I think this town has everything you'd want," says Bob. "And if it doesn't," he adds, "it's nearby."

Athens, Ga.

POP. 102,700 TYPICAL THREE-BEDROOM HOUSE: $185K TWO-BEDROOM CONDO: $250K CONTACT: Learning in Retirement (706-549-7350)

+ PROS Cultural scene, health care - CONS Game-day traffic

As much as Bob and Shirley Willoughby wanted to retire near their kids in Atlanta, they didn't want the hassles of a big city. They also knew that their children might eventually move. So the Willoughbys sought a town nearby that could stand on its own, one with a vibrant cultural scene and a strong health-care system. Athens, home to the University of Georgia, met their requirements and then some. The town of 102,700 lacks even a hint of modern urban sprawl. A pedestrian-friendly downtown lines the edge of campus. Two well-regarded hospitals are within five miles of the town center; three golf clubs sit just beyond the perimeter.

Entertainment includes six local theaters, wine tastings in the botanical gardens and a music scene that both spawned rock superstars REM and supports a community orchestra. Anyone over 62 can take classes at UGA for free. And Learning in Retirement, a local member-run nonprofit, taps professors to teach classes.

To folks arriving from any big-city metro area, Athens is strikingly affordable. Modest homes start at less than $150,000, and dinner for two at one of Athens' finer restaurants runs less than $50.

"This is the best decision we ever made," says Bob, a retired Alcoa executive taking an herbology class this term, who just saw his first Bulldogs football game. "We'll be okay here even if our kids move."