Students are leading all aspects of real estate investment — investing in actual properties — through Marquette’s Real Estate Asset Program, the first and only undergraduate program of its kind.
For close to a year, Jessica Alber and her team worked toward closing a real estate investment deal. In seeking both internships and a position after graduation, she told potential employers about that process, complete with descriptions of her financial modeling and application skills that supported her case for why she’d be a great addition to their firms.
They were impressed from the start, Alber says, but her discussions about the 40-page memos she and fellow students prepare for each real estate investment presentation sealed the deal. “I think they were honestly blown away,” she says.
The employers had good reason to be astonished. Much of Alber’s real-time experience in the world of commercial real estate finance has come through her experiences as a student in Marquette’s new Real Estate Asset Program. Since entering the program in January 2023, Alber has learned the process of purchasing and managing ownership shares in commercial real estate properties, gaining real-world experience in investment sourcing, underwriting, closing, management and investor reporting.
“When your interview immediately goes to the deals that you’ve done, that’s a higher-level conversation,” says Andy Hunt, Bus Ad ’08, Grad ’13, Vieth Director of the Center for Real Estate. “You’re demonstrating a professional-level skill, and you’re instantly in the final round to be considered for that job.”
Started in 2021, the Real Estate Asset Program, or REAP, is the first — and only — real estate investment program for undergraduates in the United States. Juniors and seniors enrolled in REAP analyze offering memorandums and make recommendations to an investment committee that oversees a $2 million fund to invest as limited partners with sponsors who oversee day-to-day operations of the properties and execute investment strategies for each. REAP is housed in Marquette’s Center for Real Estate, ranked among the nation’s top undergraduate commercial real estate programs by U.S. News & World Report. It’s also the only such center at a Catholic and Jesuit university.
Although the Center for Real Estate has long been a leader in undergraduate business education, Hunt, along with former Bell Chair in Real Estate Dr. Anthony Pennington-Cross, understood the need for the center to offer an applied, real-world learning experience that went beyond theoretical concepts and exams in a classroom. In a commercial real estate landscape, they recognized the best method would allow students to invest in actual properties over time.
As Hunt continued his research, he found no institutions were offering that opportunity for undergraduate students. Some schools had graduate-level programs, or organizations and clubs for undergraduates, but not a full academic program.
Marquette would become the leader in that effort.
After two years of intensive planning, Hunt and Pennington-Cross launched the program with Vito Taphorn, Bus Ad ’98, as program director. Also key to this effort were alumni Pat Biernacki, Bus Ad ’08, and Mike Wanezek, Bus Ad ’09, who brough the idea to Marquette years ago, as well as Christopher Hughes, Bus Ad ’88, and Michelle Panovich, who worked tirelessly to determine the right legal structure and framework to make the program happen — a framework that had not before been implemented elsewhere but worked flawlessly for Marquette.
Taphorn brought more than two decades of commercial real estate finance experience to the classroom, using his experiences in originating deals and transactions to advise students in similar efforts. He also works with industry partners to generate a consistent pipeline of real estate investment opportunities for REAP students.
“I hear from individuals on a daily basis who wish something like this existed when they were in college,” Taphorn says. “All the professionals we speak to see the value it adds to the student experience. We’re here to provide students with that experience and give them the ability to take it into the real world.”
Property investments made by the REAP program since its inception in 2021.
Investments are limited partnerships, analyzed and presented by students to REAP’s professional investment committee.
The three-semester program was designed to model the multiyear nature of real estate investments, and students can apply for REAP during the fall semester of their junior year. Cohorts are small by design, with 10 to 12 real estate majors learning to operate like a corporate analyst pool. As new cohorts enter the program, they join existing, fully operating teams to maintain continuity.
Panovich, retired principal of Mid-America Asset Management and chair of REAP’s investment council, says finding the right structure and approach for the program was a fascinating puzzle to solve — and that’s made the results for students that much more rewarding. “The success of the program is proved by the positions garnered by these students, most of whom secured these jobs before their actual graduation date,” she says. “The icing on this is seeing how the employers are so impressed by the program results. I am honored to be involved and be a witness to the success of the students.”
The 10 students in the inaugural cohort all landed jobs after their May 2023 graduation, and Hunt says the current cohort also is trending toward a 100 percent placement rate after graduation. Their starting salaries, on average, are $15,000 higher than the national average for a graduate from a general real estate program.
One of those former students, Grace Vanden Heuvel, Bus Ad ’23, remembers how she and her peers came to the first REAP class in January 2022 not knowing what to expect. They didn’t have to wonder for long — Taphorn presented a deal that day for the group to begin working on.
A few months later, during her summer commercial brokerage internship at Ogden & Company, Vanden Heuvel recognized her ability to comprehend and break down sponsor materials as a skill she gained through her REAP course work. As she moved into a commercial real estate analyst internship with Midloch Investment Partners that fall, Vanden Heuvel continued to use her REAP experience to impress her supervisors.
That internship turned into a job offer, and Vanden Heuvel now works for Midloch as an associate. “A lot of what I do now is an exact translation of what I did in REAP,” Vanden Heuvel says about her work as an analyst and underwriter. “The program helped me grow my skills and get a solid foundation to start my career.”
Alber also had that realization during her investment analyst internship last summer with MLG Capital. “I really appreciated the aspect of teamwork and collaboration I learned through REAP,” she says. “Being able to navigate an intense environment like this can be a really daunting task for a group of 20-year-olds, but it gave me confidence to succeed in my future career.”
And she knows where that career will start. With a semester to go before graduation, Alber has already secured a position at Baker Tilly in Chicago as a development advisory consultant.
“Our long-term bet is that this level of exposure will lead to our students being further along than their peers when they start their jobs,” Hunt says. “That’s why being the only program like this in the nation matters, because when it’s time to compete against other talent, our students are more prepared than anyone else in the country.”