In 2017, UMass Boston became the third American university to join the AFU Global Network. In 2019, the five-campus University of Massachusetts system became the first university system to join the network.
How well do universities meet the needs of an age-diverse population—as learners, employees, and individuals in the community? That question is at the heart of Age-Friendly University (AFU) research being led by a team based at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
In 2017, UMass Boston became the third American university to join the AFU Global Network, an initiative created in 2012 by Dublin City University in Ireland. The network now counts more than 95 member institutions around the world, including institutions in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Australia, South Korea, and beyond. In 2019, the five-campus University of Massachusetts system became the first university system to join the AFU Global Network.
The network describes an age-friendly university as one that fosters intergenerational learning. Additionally, the AFU’s 10 guiding principles emphasize how all universities can enrich their research agendas by considering the needs of an aging society, extending aging education across the curriculum, and promoting public discourse on reframing aging.
“The principles of Age-Friendly Universities fit well within the stated mission and values of UMass Boston as an urban campus committed to research, teaching, and public service within a supportive environment for students of all ages,” says Nina Silverstein, PhD, professor of gerontology at UMass Boston’s McCormack Graduate School, who conducts AFU research and led the effort for the school to join the network.
Silverstein has assembled an age-friendly university research team that is “truly interdisciplinary and intergenerational,” including:
- Susan Whitbourne, PhD, professor emerita of psychology at UMass Amherst and an adjunct professor of gerontology and fellow of the Gerontology Institute;
- Lauren Bowen, PhD, associate professor of English, director of the Composition Program, and fellow of the Gerontology Institute at UMass Boston;
- Joann Montepare, PhD, professor of psychology and director of the RoseMary B. Fuss Center for Research on Aging and Intergenerational Studies at Lasell University/Lasell Village and fellow of the Gerontology Institute;
- Shu Xu, gerontology doctoral candidate, UMass Boston
- Yan Lin, gerontology doctoral candidate, UMass Boston.
“The AFU concept is a movement. With more institutions of higher education joining the network, momentum is growing along with impact.”Nina Silverstein, PhD, professor of gerontology
In a February 2022 The Gerontologist article, the team introduced its age-friendly Inventory and Campus Climate Survey (ICCS). The tool helps institutions of higher education identify strengths and challenges for advancing age inclusivity. The team first tested the ICCS with the UMass 5-campus system in 2019 and then across 23 campuses nationwide in 2020. The inventory offers an objective assessment of practices found at the university, while the climate survey collects subjective, experience-based feedback from students, faculty, and staff.
“Age-friendly practices are aspirational principles,” says Montepare. “We examined more than 190 practices, whittled them down to 93 practices, documented their presence as reported by informants (mostly unit heads), and compared them with the climate survey results. We were asking people if proactive practices exist, and in general how age friendly the campus feels.
Then we took the objective results and compared them to the subjective. It turned out that our model works, our data support our predictions.”
“This really expands the concept of a campus community beyond learners to include staff and faculty,” says Whitbourne. “A lot of the survey participants have worked at the school for 15 or 20 years. We’re looking at campuses as places of employment, not just places for educating students.”
Silverstein points to career services as one example of how universities need to change their approach when serving older students. Career services staff members are accustomed to advising first-time job seekers, role-playing for first interviews, and writing first resumes. “Advising on second careers and assisting returning students is quite a different skill set,” she says. “So we want to identify those gaps.”
Recently, the team—with a generous continuation grant from the RRF Foundation for Aging—launched a third phase of the project, “Moving from Age-Friendly Principles to Practices in U.S. Higher Education,” in January 2022. In this project, Bowen is leading efforts to design, facilitate, and analyze responses from focus group sessions with faculty, staff/administrators, and students in the U.S. in order to develop a set ostrategies for increasing age inclusivity in teaching and learning, personnel, and student affairs functions of higher education institutions.
“The AFU concept is a movement,” Silverstein says. “With more institutions of higher education joining the network, momentum is growing along with impact. Demographics, nationally and globally, help: The number of traditional-age students is shrinking while the number of older adults is mushrooming.”
“Universities are staring down an enrollment cliff and people are frightened. Schools are looking at the prospect of empty seats,” Whitbourne says. “That’s been one of our selling points. We can say, ‘Well, we have some ideas.’”