Learning how to develop real estate successfully is a tough assignment. Not only must developers understand basic business and financial practices, but they must also be able to gauge the market and meld the talents of designers, engineers, builders, and sales staffs to produce successful projects. It takes timing, knowledge, and good luck to make it work in the complicated world of real estate development. That is the challenge—and the rationale—for university real estate programs that teach the hows and whys of the field.

Last year’s Urban Land roundup of university real estate programs (January/February 2010, page 94) found hopeful signs that the nation’s lackluster economy was not dissuading student interest in learning about real estate development. Although concern about the return of a viable market persists, a survey of 21 current university programs found that many would-be players in urban development are eagerly signing up for university courses. They intend to strengthen their competitive appeal in a changing employment market.

They also are aware that the real estate industry is favoring fresh approaches to development —techniques that can deliver projects attuned to today’s market realities, including evolving financial complexities, new engineering approaches, and fresh ideas about designs for sustainable buildings and projects.

The current generation of budding developers must be knowledgeable not only about management and finance, but also familiar with a widening array of critical production factors and issues—public policies and requirements, changing concepts of structural and neighborhood design, trends in travel modes and patterns, and concerns about sustainable, adaptable modes of building cities and towns. “Real estate development is not just about ‘bricks and sticks,’” says Christian Redfearn, director of graduate programs in real estate at the University of Southern California School of Policy, Planning, and Development, “but an intense understanding of market forces, public policies, and financial and other institutions that drive development.”

Given the range of program goals, it is not surprising that university pro­­­grams teaching the principles and practices of real estate devel­op­­ment are moving along multiple educational paths. The most common route to a postgraduate degree in real estate development remains based in a business school and offers a master of business administration (MBA) degree with a specialization in real estate development. As an alternative, some university programs lead to a two-year master’s degree in real estate development.

However, variations abound. Columbia University’s program, for example, focuses on an MBA with a real estate concentration, but also provides for joint degrees in construction management, planning, and public policy. The Mays Business School at Texas A&M University offers a master of real estate degree, but also grants master’s degrees with a concentration in real estate and undergraduate degrees in finance with a real estate emphasis. Texas A&M also offers master of land development degrees through its College of Architecture. A few universities, such as Harvard University and the University of North Carolina, offer real estate development courses within architecture or city planning curricula, leading to a master’s degree in design with a real estate concentration. Several public universities such as Cleveland State University provide for a one- or two-year graduate certificate in real estate development.

Some schools offer a variety of formats for obtaining a master’s degree, requiring basic business courses but also allowing choices among an array of courses that can allow students to focus on real estate development. Florida State University, for example, offers a master’s degree in business administration or finance with a specialization in real estate; it also allows graduate students in the urban planning or business curricula to obtain a certificate in real estate development. And a number of schools, mostly state universities, provide for bachelor’s degrees in business with a real estate focus. Doctorates in business are granted by a substantial number of universities, many allowing for extended research in real estate development topics.

Virtually all the university programs in real estate development also encourage program support from graduates or executives in local firms active in the field. Many universities draw on these resources for teachers or speakers who enrich classroom discussions or are willing to show off their latest projects for on-site student learning. University real estate programs also establish advisory boards often made up of graduates who can offer advice on the curriculum and other concerns and/or host a discussion forum once or twice a year. For example, the Cornell Real Estate Council, initiated with a small group of Cornell University alumni in the 1970s, now has more than 1,200 members worldwide who support the academic program by participating in symposiums, delivering lectures, meeting with students, and providing advice on summer and permanent job opportunities.

Real estate programs also benefit from the establishment of privately sponsored research centers such as Columbia University’s Paul Milstein Center for Real Estate and the University of Southern California Lusk Center for Real Estate. Both were created and are supported through private donations and the active participation of board members in multidisciplinary research; organization of seminars and workshops involving industry leaders, faculty, and students; and backing for other activities of the university program. These homegrown support groups can also be helpful in raising funds to bolster program expansions or, in the case of public universities, helping garner backing in state legislatures for funding of new curricula.

With this array of entrées to education in real estate development, universities are attracting not only students new to the development world, but also entrepreneurs with significant experience hoping to broaden their skills and increase their appeal in the job market. In today’s economy, university real estate programs are gaining attention from substantial numbers of students with years of experience in real estate development who are preparing for grander opportunities.

Whatever skills students may bring to the classrooms on day one of their chosen real estate curriculum, they are preparing to take on exciting projects and become deeply involved in development. Their talents and knowledge will be needed. In recent years, United States–based developers have become increasingly involved in foreign development projects, and American opportunities for development are expanding as the nation’s population grows.

By 2030, 40 million new residential units will be needed in the United States and 20 million existing units will need to be replaced in order to house expected in­­creases in population, according to estimates of U.S. growth generated by Arthur Nelson, Presidential Professor of City and Metropolitan Planning and director of metropolitan research at the University of Utah. A significant increase in the proportion of one- and two-person households during that period will stimulate part of that growth. Nelson also foresees demand for 50 billion square feet (4.6 billion sq m) of new nonresidential space during that period. Although current economic conditions may hamper market responses to those needs, the next 20 years should see substantial pressures for increased development in the United States.

This survey of 21 university real estate programs conducted this July and August found many programs that have plenty of students knocking at their doors. University faculties report that despite a moribund economy and a sharp slowdown in development projects coming out of the ground, incoming students are focused on preparing themselves for future growth—not only in the United States but around the world. Most universities contacted for this report indicate an increasing interest by students in engaging in foreign development. Furthermore, many programs are attracting significant numbers of foreign students interested in learning from the competitive know-how of U.S. developers.

Across the board, new students are interested in building their understanding of the increasing complexities of packaging financing, managing construction of complicated projects, generating public support, and other aspects of an increasingly demanding development process.

This brief overview of university programs and degree requirements in real estate development only begins to describe the range of learning options available for students in universities across the nation. In turn, what appears to be an increasing interest in improving skills in today’s changing marketplaces and development processes underscores the fundamental importance of higher education in real estate development.

Clearly, there are many paths to earning university degrees in real estate development, and a wide variety of disciplines and subjects quite reasonably provide grist for that education mill. Perhaps an abundance of approaches is appropriate, given the many effects of the real estate development process in shaping the places and, ultimately, the cultures in which we live. This broad-brush description of university programs in real estate development provides some evidence of a continuing search for ways to enhance the world’s cities and towns while maintaining a sustainable environment.