Seniors housing is about to graduate to the next level. This fall, the Erickson School launches the first-of-its-kind master's degree program in aging services at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). The 15-month program is the latest phase in the evolution of the Erickson School, a relatively new institution that teaches the business management of aging services.

Industry leader John Erickson donated $5 million in seed money three years ago to start the school. The State of Maryland matched Erickson's gift. Last year, the Erickson School opened its undergraduate program with 43 students.

An executive education program — previously run by Johns Hopkins University and the National Investment Center for the Seniors Housing & Care Industry (NIC) — was moved to the Erickson School in 2005. The school also runs the Center for Aging Studies, a research arm funded by grants.

"The nation's seniors housing industry is competitive and complex," says John Erickson, chairman and CEO of Erickson Retirement Communities. "The Erickson School will play a key role in training leaders in this industry."

Few universities have aging studies programs. Most are offshoots of gerontology departments connected to medical schools. Some offer a smattering of courses on housing. But none have focused on the business management of services and housing.

Even so, a few long-standing programs are well regarded by seniors housing executives. Many long-term care professionals have attended the program at the University of North Texas. Other notable programs include those at the University of Southern California and the University of South Florida.

"The Erickson School really fills a gap," says David Schless, president of the American Seniors Housing Association based in Washington, D.C. "This school will have a broad range of programming with more focus on housing."

Industry executives have talked for years about creating a school, Schless says. "Many of us have long looked at the hospitality program at Cornell [University] with great envy. And this is an opportunity to develop a program with that kind of reputation in the seniors housing industry." Furthermore, "the Erickson name brings a lot of cachet to the school,” adds Schless.

The goal is to integrate aging issues, business management and public policy, according to J. Kevin Eckert, dean at the Erickson School. He says the school’s business orientation will encourage leadership and entrepreneurial thinking. "That's how we want to be known."

The school employs eight full-time faculty members, including Dr. Bill Thomas, the well-known advocate for culture change in nursing homes. The executive education program has gradually expanded, and NIC continues to provide speakers and teachers.

The program features 11 courses this year. Each course runs Tuesday through Friday. Courses are held in the Baltimore area. Participants who take three courses earn a professional certificate. Tuition is $2,750 per course. (Tuition for the 15-month graduate program is $24,000 for in-state residents.)

Meanwhile, the executive education program is extending its reach beyond housing and management, according to Kevin Heffner, program head and director of external relations at UMBC. For instance, a course in January will focus on culture change in long-term care facilities. A fall class, "Creating Value Through Service Excellence," will use a case study approach similar to that of Harvard Business School.

Phil Golden, president of Brightview Senior Living LLC, Baltimore, will teach a course this fall on development. Experts will speak on project management, construction and market research. "These are industry pros," says Golden. "You could study real estate development somewhere else, but here you're in a class with people in seniors housing."

"I see a real improvement [in the School] from year to year,” says Golden. “They've put together a nice team and they're taking it to the next level."