After watching Chicago real estate explode in the past five years, college senior Jorge Lopera was inspired to learn more about the commercial market. Yet when he started at DePaul University three years ago, there weren't many opportunities for undergraduates.
Much to Mr. Lopera's delight, DePaul is offering a new bachelor of science degree in real estate starting this month.
Now Lopera has six months to squeeze in all the required credits to graduate in June with a double major in finance and real estate.
"With the real estate major, you're seeing the whole investment-analysis side," says Lopera, who is enrolled in real estate law and urban-planning development courses. "I'm getting completely different exposure through these courses."
Real-estate education is red hot, thanks to a booming real-estate market nationwide. As a result, colleges everywhere are adding new programs and building on existing ones to keep up with industry and student demand.
Some experts warn, however, that the market may have hit its peak - and the field could be headed for a decline.
"If you went back to the late 1990s, you probably saw very similar situations with classes in the securities industry for stockbrokers or Internet-related enterprises," says Peter Schiff, president of Euro Pacific Capital, an investment firm based in Newport Beach, Calif.
"The real-estate industry is going to be one of the worst industries to be associated with in the next 10 to 20 years. We are in a major bubble."
Instead, Mr. Schiff says, students should turn their attention to agriculture, horticulture, engineering, and foreign languages, such as Mandarin.
"That's where a lot of trading and wealth is going to be emanating from the world," he says.
"The US needs to move back to a wealth-producing, manufacturing, and exporting economy."
But as long as people demand space for businesses, there will be a market for leasing and selling, determining value, and issuing loans, says Gerard Mildner, professor of urban studies and planning at Portland State University in Oregon.
"There's an old saying about the legal profession - they can make money in good markets and bad markets, either forming new companies or managing bankruptcies," says Professor Mildner.
"In some ways, the real estate industry is similarly insulated. There's obviously more money to be made in a strong market where you're developing new properties, but not everybody is developing properties. A fair number are managing properties."
Last spring, Portland State started offering an undergraduate degree in real estate finance and a minor in real estate development. Mildner was instrumental in creating the university's Real Estate Center and he also helped set up the graduate certificate program.
"Sometimes real estate gets overlooked by business schools and undergrads," says Mildner, "perhaps because it's not as sexy as other parts of corporate America. But one of the things that these degree programs can do for people is to help them see over their small segment and broaden their career horizon."
That's why Christopher Magalhaes, a junior economics major at New York University, is working toward a noncredit real estate certificate. He may not pursue real estate as a career, but he feels it's crucial to have a good understanding of as many fields as possible.
"It's important because I know that some day I may want to buy a house," says Mr. Magalhaes.
"I may also want to try my hand in commercial real estate at some point in my life, so I don't want to limit myself." This year, more than 5,000 students enrolled in NYU's Real Estate Institute - an increase of 500 from 2000.
While real estate schools specifically train students to sell houses, most college programs concentrate on the commercial end - appraisals, development, investments, and management.
About 10 years ago, only about 30 colleges offered real estate degree programs. Today, that number has more than doubled to 62, according to Don Moliver, director of the Real Estate Institute at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, N.J.
At Monmouth, professionals can enroll in an MBA program with a specialization in real estate. The school also plans to add an undergraduate degree in the future. "It's something that is growing," says Mr. Moliver, "and I'm pleased to say that if you look at schools that offer real estate, they really are among the best in the country."
Although universities are adding to their programs, they have actually been slow to respond to the real- estate boom, says Moliver, because in some circles, the old perception that it's a trade and not a profession still exists.
"In the early days, the genesis of it was primarily women, maybe on a part-time basis who were selling houses and the commercial side was only men," he says.
"Today, it's a highly competitive industry and most of the people in the industry got their education by the seat of their pants. What we have is a lot of seasoned folks who are saying, 'Let's take these young people who are joining the industry and send them out for training.' "
It's evident there is a demand for educated professionals. In the past year, DePaul has received a record number of job listings in the field, from investment to mortgage lending companies, says Susanne Cannon, director of the university's three-year-old real estate center at DePaul.
By the end of this academic year, about 300 students will have taken an introductory real estate analysis course already offered at DePaul, up from 266 the year before. At least 50 students now declare real estate as their major.
"As industry has moved from the cowboy developer and the small-shop real estate broker into much larger institutional investors, the demand for qualified professionals in all areas of real estate continues to escalate," says Ms. Cannon.
This is welcome news for Lopera. When he hears chatter about the real- estate bubble bursting, he doesn't want to believe it. He hopes to one day invest in Chicago condominiums and to buy land in Arizona and Texas and develop it.
"I don't see it bursting, but at the same time, I do see areas of Chicago that might be overdeveloped," says Lopera. But if it doesn't work out as a career, "I'll always be able to use the degree for myself because I will personally want to invest in real estate."