Winter 2023/2024 Issue

Unlocking the Potential of Commercial Real Estate at the University Level

By: Michael Riopel
Marquette real estate students regularly participate in real-world commercial real estate problem-solving sessions, including NAIOP case competitions. Courtesy of Andrew Hunt

Involvement in educational programs benefits the seasoned and the green. 

As a practicing real estate professional and a passionate advocate for education, I eagerly accepted the invitation from Development magazine to share my personal experiences on the transformative power of education and the importance of supporting CRE academic programs.

Education has always been a driving force in my life. When I was growing up, my parents instilled in me the belief that education was the key to unlocking opportunities. My father arrived in the United States at the age of 16 without speaking English, and he relied on the generous support of a neighbor to pay for his education. Through hard work and determination, he not only built a successful real estate career but also became a teacher of business and real estate at the local community college. His story is a testament to the possibilities that education can offer, regardless of one’s background.

The Potential of CRE Programs

CRE-focused programs have grown tremendously in the past decade. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, from the 2015-16 academic year to 2019-20, the number of students receiving a bachelor’s degree in real estate or real estate development grew at an annualized rate of 13%. Over the same period, the number of students receiving a master’s degree in these fields grew at a more modest annual pace of 3.5%, which was still faster than the average for all master’s degree programs (1.2%). Bachelor’s degree conferrals across all business fields grew at an annualized rate of 1.7%, and master’s degree conferrals across all business fields grew at an annualized rate of 1.8%. (See “Expanding the Pipeline: Promoting Diversity in Undergraduate and Graduate Real Estate Programs,” Development, Winter 2021/2022.)

Despite the immense value such programs offer, many individuals, including industry professionals, are unaware of the opportunities CRE undergraduate and graduate programs provide. Not only do these programs offer students a solid foundation in real estate principles, but they also foster a pipeline of talented and motivated professionals who will shape the future of the built environment.

An example of an educational program that has harnessed the potential of CRE programs is Marquette University in Milwaukee. Through its Center for Real Estate, Marquette has created a comprehensive undergraduate-level curriculum that combines academic rigor with practical industry experience. Students engage with industry practitioners, participate in internships and gain hands-on experience through real estate projects. This holistic approach prepares students for the challenges and complexities of the CRE industry, equipping them with the skills and knowledge needed to excel in their careers. The recently launched Real Estate Asset Program (REAP) provides students with real-world experience in investment sourcing, underwriting, closing, management and investor reporting. Students offer recommendations to an investment committee made up of alumni and program supporters with oversight of a $2 million pledged equity fund.

Additionally, NAIOP Wisconsin and Marquette launched the MKE CRE Summer High School Immersion Program in 2020. The program invites local high schoolers to spend a week on campus to learn more about the industry through activities, site visits and lectures from local professionals. Many young people think working in real estate is synonymous with being a realtor and are unaware of the diverse careers in CRE, from development and investment to property management and brokerage.

The Benefits of Supporting CRE Programs

I urge you to participate in your local or alumni institution’s CRE programs. Doing so will yield a multitude of benefits for you, the industry and society. By actively supporting these programs, we can form alliances between academia and industry, ensuring that students are exceptionally prepared for the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

Specifically, supporting CRE programs helps cultivate a highly skilled workforce. The industry is constantly evolving, and it requires professionals who possess a deep understanding of market trends, financial analysis and legal complexities. By investing in CRE education, we can ensure that students graduate with the necessary skills to navigate these challenges and contribute to the industry’s growth.

Additionally, increased collaboration between universities and CRE professionals fosters innovation and drives advancements in the field. By establishing partnerships, industry leaders can share their expertise, provide mentorship opportunities and contribute to the development of cutting-edge research. This collaboration not only benefits students but also leads to new ideas, technologies and practices.

Recommendations for Industry Support and Engagement

Professional organizations such as NAIOP and other CRE associations can help bridge the gap between universities and the relevant skills required for careers today. This can be accomplished in the following ways:

Mentorships. Associations have established mentorship programs that connect industry professionals with students. By sharing their experiences and insights, mentors can guide students on their career paths, provide valuable networking opportunities and offer practical advice on navigating the industry.

Internships. Associations and CRE firms often collaborate with universities to develop internship programs. These internships provide students with real-world experience, allowing them to apply their classroom knowledge in practical settings. Additionally, internships serve as a talent pipeline for companies, enabling them to identify and recruit promising individuals who can contribute to their organizations.

Scholarships. Funding helps students alleviate the financial burden, while making education more accessible and inclusive.

Research. Associations can support students who do academic research, allowing them to expand on their ideas, work with practitioners and increase their authorship. The NAIOP Research Foundation encourages student participation in research through its Distinguished Fellows Program.

I believe that success should not be measured solely by personal achievements but also by the impact we have on others. By giving back to CRE programs, we can provide opportunities for students who may not have had access to this education otherwise. We can inspire and empower the next generation of CRE professionals, helping them unlock their full potential and contribute to the industry’s growth.

Michael Riopel is assistant general counsel for Northwestern Mutual, a NAIOP Research Foundation Governor and vice chair of Marquette University’s CRE advisory board.

The Benefits of a Real Estate Degree

Andy Sinclair, a Marquette real estate graduate, credits the program with helping him land a position at institutional brokerage firm Palmer Capital and later with real estate private equity investment group MLG Capital, where he helped launch one of its first real estate funds. He also mentored students and hired multiple alumni from the program, having quick access to some of the best talent.

When Sinclair launched his own investment firm, his Marquette connections helped him hire even more graduates. He later became president of the real estate alumni association and then joined the university’s Center for Real Estate Advisory Board with other industry leaders. As his firm grew, he also supported Marquette’s $2 million Real Estate Asset Program (REAP), a fund the university started that allows students to invest in actual real estate deals. In 2022, Marquette’s REAP students joined Sinclair’s firm in investing in a transit-oriented, Class A apartment property.

Every step of the way, Sinclair has leaned into Marquette’s real estate program and gained more than a credential. 

NAIOP Research Foundation Skills Survey

Finding, training and retaining talent can be challenging for commercial real estate development firms. Baby boomers are gradually aging out of the workforce, increasing the demand for younger workers who can take their place. At the same time, technological innovation and an evolving industry constantly shape the skills and duties required of commercial real estate professionals. Last year, the NAIOP Research Foundation convened the Talent Development Task Force, which recommended that NAIOP conduct a survey on what skills are most important to development-related professions. The survey results can be found at



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