The Next Step

Iowa State University’s unique Master of Real Estate Development program.

If the first rule of real estate is “location, location, location,” then Iowa State University’s Master of Real Estate Development (MRED) program has taken the next step with that concept: The location is as unique as the students enrolled in the program.

“From the outset, the program was designed for working professionals,” says James Spiller, director of the program. “Courses are mostly online, some with synchronous components to encourage dialogue between the students. But we wanted the program to be flexible to suit the students’ needs.”

In addition, two in-person courses are required, one at the beginning and one at the end of the program, to establish and develop networking opportunities and relationships. Past and present students from the growing program have said this has been key for them.

Nathan Drew, a Des Moines real estate broker and developer who was part of the inaugural graduating class last spring, says, “I wouldn’t have enrolled if it had not been online. It just wouldn’t have been possible with my schedule otherwise. But it was a perfect fit.”

“I had been doing marketing for a civil engineering company, and I was sort of reevaluating the direction I wanted to go,” says current student Anna Eldridge, an Iowa native now living in Minnesota. “Real estate development was one of the areas that interested me. I got my undergrad degree at Iowa State and heard about the program from one of its alumni publications, so I decided to enroll.”

Eldridge began her coursework last fall, and having that on her résumé has already resulted in a new job with Ryan Companies. “My marketing experience and degree qualified me for the job,” she says. “But the MRED program caught Ryan’s eye because that interest in development adds value for them.”

Spiller says it was similar industry feedback that spurred the program’s development in the first place. “The program launched in 2019, but it was probably five years earlier that a task force was organized in response to input from industry professionals in the business and design fields,” he says. “They indicated that there was a gap in recent college graduates’ knowledge and training in real estate development.”

The resulting MRED curriculum is unique in the marketplace. It pulls coursework from three distinct, interrelated areas: the College of Design, the Ivy College of Business, and the College of Engineering.

“The core courses come from each of these areas, covering architectural planning, finance and management, and construction,” Spiller says. “That trifecta isn’t present in any other program, and it brings together all the key moments along that chain of action in a real estate development project.”

Although the curriculum and the program requirements have continued to evolve since that first semester, all those involved say the model with which Iowa State started has been integral to its growth.

“Even with COVID hitting that second semester, we really didn’t skip a beat. Courses went on as planned. We wore masks and social distanced when we were on campus, but it didn’t really affect anything,” Drew says.

Despite the distance-learning approach, Drew says it was the relationships and the interaction between students, professors, and mentors that meant the most to him. During that initial in-person setting at the program’s outset, students are introduced to industry professionals who serve as mentors throughout the students’ time in the program.

“The networking aspect during the program as well as with the graduates of the program has already been such an asset for me,” he says. “My mentor met with me once a month throughout the program, and he continues to reach out to me regularly just to check in.”

Whether students are local to Iowa or not, Spiller says one of his ongoing objectives is to continue building that mentor network across the country. “We currently have students in Arizona, Florida, Minnesota,” he says. “So it’s important to have that national network in order to serve students across the country. The amount of one-on-one curation [individual customization] that’s a key element in the program is naturally time-consuming from an administrative standpoint, but it’s so important to how the program was designed.”

Eldridge says, “I initially questioned the need to be on campus for that initial week, but I loved that in-person experience. The networking conversations, meeting the different people in the program, it really helped kick off the program and connect everyone from the beginning.”

Both Eldridge and Drew say that balance of broad coursework and flexibility attracted them to the MRED at ISU.

For Eldridge, it’s helped her narrow her professional focus in just the first year. “Starting a new job in the midst of this, the courses I’ve been taking have really helped me understand the work my employer does. I’m constantly doing things in class that come up every day on the job,” she says. “I saw the program as something that would expose me to as many different aspects of development as possible. I could narrow my focus to where I wanted to go professionally. It’s doing that, but it’s also helping me understand my current role even better.”

Drew says his biggest takeaway has been the confidence the program gave him. “I learned a lot in my undergrad and in my MBA, but the MRED has given me more confidence,” he says. “I’ve wanted to be in land development for a long time, and now I have the confidence to go out and do it. It’s not a someday anymore. I’m doing it.”

The MRED program at Iowa State may be unique because of its hybrid learning approach and its three-pronged course focus, but Spiller says there’s more to it than that. “What really makes us unique is our students. They’re creating that unique network of resources that continues to build back into what we offer. The students and the graduates are the program.”