As director of external relations of the Erickson School at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Kevin Heffner not only is instrumental in fundraising, but also a driving force in spreading the word about what the school has to offer. Heffner’s efforts are helping to position the Erickson School as a prime source for the latest information about aging and the elderly.

Heffner is no stranger to seniors housing education. He came to the Erickson School from the Beacon Institute, a charitable organization focusing on quality of life and quality of care for seniors. In that position, he oversaw the development of the Beacon Institute’s Handelman Learning Center, which hosts more than 70 educational programs annually in Columbia, Md.

The Erickson School offers credit and non-credit programs at the undergraduate, graduate and executive levels, specializing in issues related to aging. Of special interest to seniors housing execs, currently the school offers nine executive education courses in seniors housing, which typically meet for several days once a year.

NREI: What’s the takeaway from Erickson’s senior housing executive education courses?

Heffner: It provides real-world information, with some depth. As opposed to the academic world, with its approach from a 30,000-foot level, our classes are led by people in their fields — such as operators, finance professionals, architects and developers. The classes also offer more than the tidbits you get in one-hour or 90-minute seminars at conferences. Three-and-a-half days provide a depth that makes the courses worthwhile, a forum in which you can drill down into the big issues, which change on a regular basis. Participants can also tap into the expertise of the other class members.

NREI: Is the overall course selection being expanded?

Heffner: New courses are being developed with some regularity. For example, in December, we’re offering a course called “The Bottom Line Impact of Strategic Human Capital” for the first time.

NREI: Can you describe in more detail the course covering seniors housing development?

Heffner: It was originally developed by NIC (National Investment Center for the Seniors Housing & Care Industry) and hosted by Johns Hopkins University. The purpose was to provide practitioner-led discussions and information from experts about current development issues in the industry. It’s been at the Erickson School twice now, in 2005 and 2006, and we’ll hold it again in October.

The leader of the class is Phil Golden, president and COO of Brightview Senior Living and Shelter Properties, two Baltimore-based divisions of the Shelter Group. Brightview Senior Living manages a portfolio of about 1,900 market-rate seniors housing units in the Mid-Atlantic and New England. Phil also has experience as vice president of development at Deerfield Healthcare Corp.

NREI: What’s the focus of the course?

Heffner: Overall, the course is about the pitfalls in developing these kinds of properties. We have class sizes of 25 or 30, and they break into learning groups of five or six at times to deal with various specialized problems or issues, after which they have a conversation with the whole class on recommended action.

That helps provide ideas and tools that the participants can take away. In each single learning group there might be a finance person, an architect and a couple of operators, so the conversation among them will be compelling.

The participants also visit a continuing care retirement community and a standalone assisted living property, talking about the development process for each. So there’s some hands-on participation.

NREI: What’s the response been to that course?

Heffner: It’s been so popular that we’re talking about holding it twice a year. We get a mix of participants. Half of last year’s class were traditional seniors housing developers and financiers, but the other half — which seem to represent a growing number of interested parties — are multi-market seniors housing operators. They want to find out what’s new in development, what’s hot about the industry. They’re expanding in seniors housing, or they want to. An example might be a nursing home operator who wants to provide assisted living or independent living.

NREI: How does the executive education program benefit the seniors housing industry?

Heffner: It’s a function of depth of knowledge. Seniors housing is evolving quickly as the U.S. population ages, and the school will help participants in the industry understand the changes, the path of that evolution.