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Students Don't See CRE As An Option; More Undergrad Programs Would Help

The experience of two Roosevelt University graduates underscores the potential of undergraduate CRE studies.

For many recent college graduates, their conception of real estate as a career choice doesn’t diverge that far from the reality shows seen on HGTV. It’s all about fixing, flipping and selling homes. For Rachel Horwath, 22, and Caden Fosnaugh, 21, who both graduated this spring from Chicago’s Roosevelt University with a major in real estate, it took time and exposure to, as Fosnaugh put it, “move from the HGTV mindset.”

Both were initially attracted to studying finance and business before discovering one of the relatively rare opportunities to get an undergraduate degree in real estate, especially compared to the focus on master’s degrees for institutional real estate roles. Both students took very quickly to the major and now the career path: Horwarth is working this summer for Prologis as a property manager for industrial sites, while Fosnaugh is in the midst of an internship with the commercial real estate team at CIBC he’s doing remotely from his family home in far suburban Woodstock, Illinois. 

Their experiences suggest that the CRE industry’s talent pipeline should make more inroads into undergraduate education, and even high school, as many students aren’t aware of the multiplicity of options in the industry, and the different career paths possible in commercial real estate.

Fosnaugh said it was transformative to learn, via projects simulating site development and different classes, that real estate wasn’t just buying and selling homes, that it was more like high finance and urban planning combined. After transferring into the program his junior year, he raced to take the required classes to graduate with a second major in real estate, moving his perspective on real estate from “small scale to a very large, detailed scale.”

“I didn’t really know you could have a career in real estate, I didn’t really hear about it,” said Horwath, who found real estate while researching potential majors and decided to pursue it, transferring to Roosevelt her sophomore year. “There’s so much that goes into it. I try and explain it to friends, and nobody understands what goes into it.”  

Despite the formidable challenges faced by job-seeking graduates of any major right now, including real estate, the experiences of these two students suggest that there’s a lack of exposure and networking for young talent when it comes to commercial real estate. An analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data found that just 4% of CRE employees were aged 19-24.

More programs at the undergraduate level could help with the industry’s challenges when it comes to recruiting younger talent and diversifying, both serving as a nexus for mentorships and exposing more potential talent to a view of real estate beyond Property Brothers.

Rachel Horwarth, 22, is working this summer for Prologis as a property manager for industrial sites,

Overseen by Collete English Dixon, executive director of the Marshall Bennett Institute of Real Estate at Roosevelt University, the program places undergrads in classes with graduate students, providing additional opportunities to learn and work with older real estate professionals.

English Dixon, who said she fell into the industry, has previously argued that “This industry is very hard to understand or access unless you have a foundation of relationships, capital or exposure. As we’re trying to build a pipeline of diverse talent for this industry, one of the things we find most daunting is the lack of awareness of what the industry is about, how to engage in it, and what you need to know to be successful.”

Fosnaugh said he was really intrigued by a real estate development class that began with simply analyzing a property, and then had students plan an entire development themselves; Roosevelt’s curriculum focuses on looking at the wider social impact of developments, along with learning industry-standard analysis and data tools. 

Horwath said she was encouraged to pursue an internship with Duke Realty to learn about property management and that experience led to her eventual hiring by Prologis, where she’s working on a team that does both property management and construction. 

“I really like the fact that you didn’t know what your day was going to be like, it could be anything,” she said. 

Fosnaugh, who received a $15K scholarship from the Louis and Ruth Kahnweiler Scholarship for Future Leaders in Real Estate, which targets undergraduates pursuing a bachelor of science in business administration with a concentration or major in real estate, said that a big value of the program was that many classes were taken with graduate students, which gave him insight from those who had already been in the industry. 

There were only a handful of undergrads in the class of 2021 who focused on real estate, so mixing students was crucial. Horwarth said Roosevelt often sends out internship and job opportunities focused on students who were women or people of color. 

“The industry is definitely going in the right direction,” she said. “They know their history, and they’re trying to fix it.”