Real estate developers routinely make go or no-go decisions. Does the routine sound good to you?
Whether it’s ambition or to gain specialized knowledge, reinforce career effectiveness or prepare oneself for shifts in the economy, the option is available to learn real estate development in graduate school. Granted, there are select few programs around the country – around two dozen – that confer a master’s degree in real estate development.
Given competing choices to further one’s professional growth in the global marketplace, either in real estate or otherwise, it’s fair for students to seek clarity about their own expectations. What’s more, in the information age, curious learners can explore whether self-study is sufficient for their individual aspirations in development.
Before you commit, understanding the perspective of insiders on the merits of a master’s in real estate development is invaluable.
I asked two subject matter experts to share their points of view on the pursuit of graduate-level education in real estate development. Ryan Dietz is Program Director of Clemson University’s Master of Real Estate Development program. Mark Stapp is Executive Director of the Master of Real Estate Development program at Arizona State University. The professors’ abundant insights will move you closer to a go or no-go.
Tom Pfister: You’re academicians. You know that students have core expectations when it comes to investing money, time and effort, contrasted with what they’ll gain and their satisfaction. What should prospective graduate students fairly expect to gain from a Master of Real Estate Development program?
Ryan Dietz: A Master of Real Estate Development degree prepares students to transform the communities in which we live, work and play in. When I say “transform,” I mean it in both a literal and figurative way. Our students will leave a lasting footprint on this earth through the land and buildings they develop. Their quality projects will have a lasting impact on the communities they service, and therefore, will be a lasting legacy for the students and their families.
Of all the fields in the real estate industry (e.g., brokerage, acquisitions, investment, management), real estate development is the hardest field to enter. Why? Because it requires knowledge of all other real estate fields plus advanced knowledge in entitlements, land use, community partnership, construction and finance.
Many people enter into real estate development after spending half of their career in another real estate industry field, and then “falling into development” by accident. There is no accident with an MRED program. The Clemson Master of Real Estate Development program curriculum provides every student the opportunity to experience the entire development cycle and learn the particular skills required to navigate it. Our students not only have knowledge bestowed to them through professors in the classroom, they gain useful industry skills by working with professional developers and other real estate professionals who participate in the curriculum. By the time they graduate, MRED students are ready to perform – no need to wait half a career.
Mark Stapp: This business has changed considerably. Our program is geared toward teaching students to be strategic and critical thinkers about the business. There is a lot of risk, and without full understanding of the business, it is difficult to know the risks and have the skills to assess and plan for mitigation. But also, it is a business that relies on networking. The value in a master’s in real estate development comes as much from the connections you make as it does the course material. In our case at Arizona State University, our faculty has been involved in development projects across the country for decades. And we have the added factor of being one of the fastest growing areas of the country for about a quarter century. So these contacts are working on, or have recently worked on, some major projects in one of the largest cities in the U.S., where many of our students will compete for jobs. That’s an instant leg up on other candidates in the marketplace.
The other core benefit is that you gain this very broad knowledge you wouldn’t otherwise have without the degree. So, if your background is in construction or in financing or zoning, chances are that’s your view of a real estate development project. With a master’s like our MRED program at ASU, you see that development is all of those things and more. You learn from faculty who have different backgrounds than you, work on projects with classmates who bring different perspectives and strengths, and you really gain an appreciation for those parts of the process you may never officially touch, but that have such an impact on whether or not a project succeeds or fails. When you have that foundation, of course, it makes you a very valuable asset to your own organization and to the teams that have to come together to put plans into action.
Pfister: In this information era, prospective students may wonder whether they even need an academy. For those on the fence about whether to follow self-study of real estate development versus committing to an MRED curriculum at graduate school, what would you ask them to consider in their decision making?
Dietz: The Clemson MRED program promotes teamwork and stakeholder engagement, so it is natural that our students have amazing experiential opportunities outside of the traditional classroom. Self-study may be fine for some hard-wired skills (math, for example), but there are major limitations to learning in this way, especially for careers that demand a high degree of social interaction.
If a student is on the fence about what type of program to enroll in, they should first ask themselves what type of real estate career they would like to have. If a student just wants to invest in real estate through REIT equities, self-study may suffice, as they can trade stocks online all day, by themselves, in a home office (though, even this would be difficult to pull off without experience). If they want to develop real estate, they need to hone the skills required for working with many different people, including investors, public officials, and other community stakeholders. The idea of developers sitting behind their desks with their feet up and cigars in their mouth is fictional at best.
Development does not happen without massive amounts of teamwork and stakeholder engagement. No two projects are the same, so an entrepreneurial spirit is also required. Good developers are not afraid to get their boots a little dirty, roll up their sleeves, and become deeply ingrained in the communities where they build. Self-study will never be able to replace a highly interactive program like we have at Clemson, which prepares students for all facets of a real estate development career.
Stapp: We teach them to think in an environment that is a shared experience, fostering peer learning and connections, in addition to very strong industry connections. There are some very practical, functional questions to ask yourself about the cost of the program, the time it will take, and all of those things. But it’s also important to consider how far you can go and how long you can get by knowing what you know today. Ultimately, that’s a decision most future students face when they’re thinking about returning to graduate school for any degree.
There’s a lot to be said for industry experience and things you are likely pick up on the job. But that experience may not come at you in sequence, may not be timely, and may not align with where you want to go in your career. Other programs vary, obviously, but that’s one of the reasons we have structured our MRED degree the way we have: It’s nine months long, covers all this ground with all these experts who are up to date on the latest trends and regulations; and so you’re getting years and years of that on-the-ground experience in a way that builds on topics successively, collaboratively and quickly. In most cases, you’d be much better prepared for a lot of contingencies in this industry a year after an MRED program than you would be five or even 10 years later without one.
Another point to consider is, if you’re committed to self-studying this field, what would you study? You would learn by trial and error – it is far cheaper to lose money on paper than in reality. We teach you to assess the risks, understand the opportunity and properly organize resources to achieve your objectives. We guide you, over and over again through the process to learn in a place where it’s safe to fail, study your mistakes and, receive guidance and try again. So, who would determine your curriculum, and what’s important to include there? How would you work with teammates on real-time case studies that you could show to prospective employers as proof of what you’re able to bring to the table? How do you embed yourself in the larger development community in your area if you’re set on going it alone? Again, learning on your own what you can accomplish in a master’s in real estate development program could take years and years, and learning it on your own doesn’t give you the valuable 360-degree feedback on how to apply that knowledge in your career.