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Why Go Back to School After You Retire?


By Ellen Freudenheim.

Regardless of whether you were a college dropout or a perpetual student in your not-so-distant youth, you might consider going back to school, now that you have some time to yourself in THE RETIREMENT ZONE.

Love isn’t the same the second time around, they say, and neither is school. At age 60, 74, or 82, there’s no career pressure, no crushing student loans, and no competition over grades. Most mature students aren’t taking exams, writing papers, or worrying about accumulating credits. There isn’t anyone telling them to learn German or take calculus in order to get into graduate school.

“Unlike college kids, we aren’t intimidated by professors. Because even if a lecturer is smarter, they’re almost never older,” jokes one octogenarian. He was on his way to a course called Mentors and Protégés: A Study in Intergenerational Relationships at American University in Washington, D.C.

Reentering the world of education isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. But Americans are voting with their feet for education—their own education, not the local school-bond issue—and are marching right back to school. Whether they are enrolling purely for pleasure, finishing a degree, or getting professional certification for a second career, they seem to enjoy a “second time around” as students.

Classroom Tales

Sitting in a small classroom, a dozen students listen intently as two of their peers passionately debate human cloning. Nothing is unusual—except that these students, on average, are 70 years old. Since they last wore a cap and gown, most members of the class have had one (or more) careers, one (or more) marriages, raised families, and lived a life that started way back in the 20 th cenury. The subject that so engages them at 10 A.M. on a dreary winter Monday is Bioethics and Genetic Engineering: Challenges of a Brave New World.

Sally, 65, recently retired from running a hotel catering business. Sitting at her computer at midnight after a late-night tennis game, Sally’s not surfing the Internet. She’s doing an online course offered by a university located 2,000 miles away from her Salt Lake City home. She’s working toward a credential as a teacher of English as a second language. Her dream is to work part-time in Portugal, where she and her companion think they would like to retire. Teaching will give her a “bridge job,” she says, between her career as a manager and full retirement. He’s on his way out the door to go to school—which for once isn’t the same as going to work. Colin is an athletic 55-year-old basketball fanatic who took early retirement from his administrative job for a budget-squeezed education department in a major city. He’s enrolled in the local continuing education program to sharpen his information technology skills. He has a new 30-year life plan: Using old contacts and new skills, he wants to build an educational consulting business. He hopes to sell the business at age 65, when his wife retires, so they can travel. When he hits 75, he expects to finish his career where he began, working with young children as a classroom volunteer. Meanwhile, when people ask what he’s doing, he grins and says, “Information technology—I’m doing IT!”

Combining School and UN-Retiring

For men and women anticipating several decades of good health, education becomes a way to freshen up skills, pick up a new credential, and get ready for a different or a part-time career. The range is astonishing: the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University offers a Masters in Public Health using a combined in-person/online course schedule. The University of Nevada in Las Vegas offers a degree in senior theater. If you feel stuck in THE RETIREMENT ZONE and unsure of what’s next, taking some courses is a safe, easy way to experiment.

Retirement Zone Trends: Why School’s Hot

Education is hot for the over-55 set.

What’s the impetus behind the back-to-school trend? In 2000, more than a half million U.S. students over age 50, including 75,000 students over 65, were enrolled in universities, colleges, and two-year colleges. The number of older students continues to grow steadily. The over-50 student population increased by 50 percent since the early 1990s, and shows no sign of abating. Some are retooling for a second, third, or fifth career. Others who return to school are pursuing new dreams and rekindling old passions. In Manhattan, a former publishing executive describes how he surprised even himself by enrolling for a class on architecture, an interest that he’d pushed aside in the midlife fray of working and raising a family. In Los Angeles, a 65-year-old retired music teacher “overcame a lifelong math anxiety” when she took a course that explored geometric patterns in nature—and fell in love with geometry. Some men and women, intrigued by what can be done in cyberspace (and wanting to keep up with the grandkids) are trying online courses.

You’ve watched TV and read the newspaper as the United States became desegregated, as the first men walked on the moon, as the Berlin Wall fell, and as the country ended and initiated armed conflict on different continents. You remember the first Barbie doll, Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe in their youth, and the passage of Roe vs. Wade. School offers an opportunity to review, read, and discuss these events of a lifetime.

And then there’s the freedom of learning for its own sake. David B., nearly 80, draws a circle in the air with his hands and says, “What I learned in school up to now was always circumscribed. I was to study and learn things within that circle. Preparing for a career like mine, in law for example, you are required to learn things that are relevant to law, not art, literature, or philosophy. What I have now is complete freedom. Nobody is telling me I’ve got to learn this or that. I can spread my wings. The only purpose is what I find out.”

Continuing education is big business. It’s a subset of the education industry, complete with its own trade group (the National University Continuing Education Association and career track (some university administrators specialize just in “adult” and “professional development” education). Some colleges are making significant financial investments in faculty, facilities, and programs to capture the adult student market. The result is often a professionally run adult educational institution with course offerings in almost every field, both for credit and on a non-credit basis.

Who takes adult education classes? Everybody. Housewives and lawyers, immigrants and Daughters of the American Revolution, great-grandparents and younger adults who, in addition to studying, are often juggling jobs and family responsibilities. So if your notion of “adult ed classes” is Aunt Millie taking basket weaving, look again.

12 Reasons to Give Education an “A” in THE RETIREMENT ZONE

REASON 1: There are tons of options. Study Chinese, take painting, get an MBA, delve into Dostoevsky, participate in an educational archaeological dig, or learn the skills to start a new business that will perk up your retirement income. There is a wealth of choices in terms of what you can study. Similarly, you have new options regarding how you get your education. You can sit at home in your kimono and learn online, join a community-based learning institution set up exclusively for older people, or mix it up with twenty-somethings at the local university. Got the travel bug? Take an educational travel program.

REASON 2: Education may improve the quality of your life. Personal development is hard to quantify. But students report that learning gives them a new perspective. One Vietnam vet and retired fireman describes taking an online art history course: “It’s opened up incredible horizons.”

REASON 3: It’s fun. Maybe it’s corny, but going back to school can be an adventure and a joy. Would you welcome an excuse to curl up and read all day long? Do you love the idea of engaging new ideas? Would you enjoy hanging around a university campus to see what those crazy students are wearing?

REASON 4: Education doesn’t have to be expensive. Some online courses may cost you as much as taking the same course at a top-notch college. Alternatively, special programs for retirees called “Institutes for Learning in Retirement” charge as little as $10 a month. Some colleges enroll seniors in a course or two for free.

REASON 5: Everyone’s doing it. An online-only version of the BW/Harris Poll of “relatively affluent Americans 45 and older” from Business Week, July 20, 1998, found that about half of the retirees surveyed are engaged in some kind of educational program, as shown in the following chart.

REASON 6: You can retool for your next job. Faced with a roller-coaster economy, many people with decades of work experience are going back to school part-time to broaden their skills and polish up their resume, or get a certificate or degree.

REASON 7: It’s flexible. You can structure your own schedule. If you’re an early bird, sign up for a 9 A.M. class. If you’re looking to fill your evenings, pencil in a weekly evening class. Online courses can be done anytime, anywhere.

REASON 8: It’s not a job. You’re not locked in. Some students dedicate 50 hours a week to their education, others spend only two. You can skip a summer, a semester, or a year—then pick it up again.

REASON 9: You’re likely to meet interesting people. Educational settings are terrific for making new friends, even if they remain classroom-only relationships. People with higher levels of educational attainment tend to participate more in community and political affairs, volunteer organizations, sports, and hobby clubs, according to research.

REASON 10: You can go it alone or take a course with a spouse or a friend. It’s easy to participate and make friends in a class without ever having to divulge your marital status. Some couples can, and do, study together. On the flip side, lots of married retirees are happy to have their “own thing” to do for a few hours a week.

REASON 11: It’s cool to be a “student.” Let’s be honest, “being a student” suggests all kinds of appealing things: that you’re inquiring, informal, active, and open. You may start reliving some of the things you loved best about your own college years—slouching around coffee shops and reading poetry, maybe. But don’t be disappointed if you aren’t carded when the class goes out for a beer.

REASON 12: And the doctor says it’s good for you. Education is good for your brain, which is good for your body, too. It’s no joke: learning can pay big health dividends. As 70-something Dr. Jay in Florida puts it, “If you have the chance, go to school, and exercise that muscle between your ears before it atrophies.”

Your Local College and Other Resources

Suppose you are advising a friendly, education-starved Martian on what classes she might take in your area. Where are there computer classes? Is there a school of music? A poetry club or a fine arts center? Does the local school offer evening courses in foreign languages? Is there a study group at your church, synagogue, or mosque? How about a lecture series at the Y?

You may discover a rich vein of cultural enrichment options and foreign language courses, and also creative arts such as filmmaking and writing at a local college in any major city, or in most suburbs. The programs go by different names—“continuing education,” “lifelong education,” and “adult education.”

Many colleges are sprouting satellite mini-centers. Urban colleges are opening satellites in the suburbs; uptown colleges are opening downtown minicampuses; and community colleges are opening “off campus” centers. Taking a class can be as convenient as stopping at the supermarket.

If you live far from a campus, or if driving presents an obstacle, consider taking a course either online or by old-fashioned “snail mail.” So-called “independent study enrollments” (they used to be called correspondence courses) attract a substantial number of students, and courses today are supplemented with audio and videotapes, and sometimes computer-assisted learning.

Also, check out courses offered by local museums, and chapters of your professional or trade associations, or union. You can find classes where people share interests: organizations for hobbyists, faith groups and churches, arts and crafts groups, and more. And, educational travel opportunities abound.

PRACTICAL TIP: There’s no universal guide to the quality of continuing ed classes. Most are not taught by the professors who teach college undergraduates or graduates, but rather by people with professional experience in a given field. This can make for a stunningly interesting class—or a snoozer. Get word-of-mouth recommendations, or just talk to the teacher to see if it will be worthwhile.

For Seniors Only: Lifelong Learning Institutes

Members might be writing twenty-chapter memoirs, gazing at Jupiter through a telescope, studying Islam, and digging into the nuances of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Or they may be reading the texts of ancient Greece— and then pulling together a weeklong class cruise to the Aegean to visit the places they’ve studied. Some may be preparing to facilitate a seminar on a topic that they find interesting—even if they’re rank amateurs.

If you ask a member of a Lifelong Learning Institute (LLI) or an “Institute for Learning in Retirement” (ILR) what it feels like to be a student again, he or she is likely to correct you by saying, “This is a collegial environment. It’s wrong to say we are students. There are no ‘students’ and no ‘professors.’”

An ILR or LLI (these are the same kinds of organizations, by different names) is an organization of retirement-age people who get together in an educational setting for the purposes of learning. Most are sponsored by a “host” college or university, but their members, not professional university administrators, run the programs. They attract people who like to read and discuss ideas. Usually, classes are small and styled after seminars. The organization is a local, grassroots nonprofit entity.

Don’t feel left out if you’ve never heard of an “ILR” or an “LLI” before. Not many people have. That’s because these programs generally don’t advertise. People tend to find out about them through word-of-mouth. But if you like to explore new ideas, stretch your horizons, and spend time with mature peers (and don’t want or need another credential) this might be your ticket.

Host institutions run the gamut from the nation’s most prestigious universities to state university networks to community colleges. There are Lifelong Learning Institutes and ILRs in 40 states. Most are open to people over 50. The majority of members are in the 60 to 80 age range.

When you join, you become a “member.” Dues average about $200 a year, but in some places they are as low as $10. Membership enables you to take courses, usually up to three (rules vary of course). Sometimes membership enables you to audit a regular university course for free. And members may join committees that make administrative decisions, such as what courses will be offered, who will “teach” them, and what will be part of outreach and social programming. Some Lifelong Learning Institutes or ILRs have a hired staff person, but many are run solely on volunteer power. So there are lots of volunteer opportunities that range from stuffing envelopes and answering phones to serving on long-range planning or curriculum committees. Due to space crunches at many colleges, classes often meet off-campus.

Typically, a Lifelong Learning Institute or an ILR offers ten to twenty study groups per term. Most members participate in one to three study groups per term. In most, at least half the study groups are developed and coordinated exclusively by members instead of professional faculty. At many institutes, for example at Harvard, the State University of New York programs, and Georgia College, virtually all study groups are member-coordinated. The coordinator’s job, unpaid, is to do research, prepare a reading list, and be prepared to guide a weekly discussion of ten to twenty other members. Generally, the courses are college level, some at the level of graduate seminars.

Some well-known campus hosts include, in the Northeast, Harvard, Tufts, Dartmouth, and University of Maine; in the south, Duke and Emory; in the Midwest, Northwestern, Purdue, the University of Wisconsin, University of Cincinnati, and Washington University; in the Southwest, Baylor U. in Waco, Texas, and University of Arizona at Tucson; and in the West, UCLA and California State University, which has multiple ILR sites. You can find out if there’s one near you by contacting the Elderhostel Institute Network ( Or if you live in the Western U.S., the Association for Learning in Retirement Organizations of the West ( If you don’t have an ILR close by, you can start your own!

Each program is a little different, reflecting what people in their individual communities want to do and learn. Here’s a smattering of the courses that were peer-taught by members at UCLA’s Plato Society, 2002: Great Anthropologists, The Controversial Fourteenth Amendment, Journey Into Physics, The Amazing World of the Ultra-Small Micromachines, Stories from Africa, Asia, and Latin America, Microprocessors & Nanotechnology, Presidents of the United States and their Legacies, Incredible Indonesia—Myth and Reality.

It’s a brainy, inquisitive crowd: teachers, doctors, business executives, government officials, and lawyers. One administrator comments, “They are not going for a degree. They are not going back to work; it is not a career ladder that they are thinking of. They have the curiosity for learning and want to delve into subjects at a different level.”

Kali Lightfoot, director of the University of Southern Maine’s Senior College, Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) says their 900-member program attracts ordinary lifelong Maine residents as well as highly accomplished individuals who’ve been drawn to retire in communities in the greater Portland area. Some are coming home from a way of life “away,” and some are retiring to a place where they have spent many summers. She notes, “Among our students in the Maine Senior College Network, we’ve counted an ex-head of National Job Corps, a former Iran hostage, retired and current state legislators, published authors and working artists, ministers, rabbis, and a retired four-star general.”

Anne Pearson, the 70-something volunteer coordinator of the program at California State University at Fullerton, talks about the importance of social life at the Institutes. “Even though I have four kids and eight grandkids, nobody likes being on the shelf and out of the mainstream,” she says. “It’s not just taking a class. That’s missing the point. People come together in a learning organization with others who share their interests. There is a great deal of support, usually via email and online networks. That’s one of the things you get—that group spirit.”

Even the largest of the Lifelong Learning programs are intimate, with memberships from 60 to 300 people. Only about a dozen have enrollments over 1,000. Yvonne Wheeler, who codeveloped an Institute for Learning in Retirement in Denver in 1996, described her group: “The dynamics of a group of like-minded people are unbelievable. For instance, we offered a class on China.

The group got together after the study group ended and traveled to China. They still have dinner once a month in people’s homes and invite a speaker to talk about something to do with China. They’ve been doing it for seven years!”

“Nobody has their guard up, male or female,” agrees an LLR administrator.

“There’s camaraderie in the classroom. We’ve had lots of e-mail friendships come out of it, and a few travel partnerships, too.”

Exploring The Virtual Campus

Thanks to the Internet, you can go to school without ever leaving home. What an opportunity for men and women in THE RETIREMENT ZONE! You can enroll in a university class while sitting in a fishing cabin in the Canadian Rockies or from your living room—maybe as respite from helping your spouse recover from a medical procedure. Some call it “e-education,” others call it “online learning,” “distance learning,” or just the “virtual campus.”

According to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, the majority of public colleges and universities offer distance learning courses. In 2002, there were more than 3,000 programs at more than 1,100 accredited institutions of higher learning in the U.S. and Canada.

The programs are designed for different levels: working professionals, students pursuing academic credit, career-changers, and people seeking personal development. Like location, age is not a factor. Nobody asks. As of this writing, there are very few online courses offered exclusively for people in retirement, although AARP does offer access to a consortium program called FATHOM ( You can find thousands of opportunities for study online.

What actually happens in an online course? An online is a course on virtually any topic that is delivered, wholly or partially, via the Internet to a student. Course materials and assignments are often sent via the Internet. Some courses simply give you the material and you learn on your own, at your own pace.

Others are more interactive. Some courses are offered on a non-credit basis, so you aren’t responsible for exams or submissions, and you don’t receive a grade. To communicate with your “class” via the Internet, you’ll have to type messages, post responses, and otherwise communicate using your fingers. If you hate to type, or for some reason can’t, e-learning may not be for you. If you’re looking to meet people face to face, then check out your local resources: colleges, social clubs, or travel education programs. Keep in mind, though, that people can forge wonderful friendships over the Internet.

You can find non-credit online courses on all kinds of topics, from how to write mysteries to how to officiate a soccer game. There’s even food for the soul. Taylor University (, an evangelical Christian institution, offers distance-learning classes on theology. Many other organizations offer religion based online courses as well. And some courses are highly technical in nature, like Carnegie Mellon’s ten-course certification in software engineering (http:// You might log on for a seminar in architecture at the University of California, one on ethics at Brown University (, and another in film studies at UCLA ( Some online courses are oriented toward master’s degrees or professional certification. The course possibilities are extensive.

Your best bet is to use both hard-reference books and online information to find out what’s available. Check out Peterson’s Guide to Distance Learning Programs. Almost all public education institutions offer online courses, and many private colleges and universities do, too. The University of Maryland and SUNY, the State University of New York system, offer an extensive number of online programs. Penn State is also a leader in the field, as are the University of Illinois and Stanford University. New York University’s Virtual College, which has 4,000 students enrolled internationally, is among the largest of the private sector entrants in this field. Some small private colleges, like Skidmore, also offer interesting menus. You can easily access online catalogs for courses, degree programs, and/or professional education, organized by state and country, at the Web site of the University Continuing Education Association at

Moreover, several consortiums of universities have joined forces online. FATHOM (, spearheaded by Columbia University, offers courses from 14 prestigious partners, including the London School of Economics, Cambridge University Press, and the British Library.

The corporate world is joining the e-education bandwagon., a for-profit company, recently launched Cardean University (, an online educator that it markets globally to large organizations and corporations. Also new to the scene are for-profit companies offering online business training for executives. Trade and professional associations, companies, and unions offer classes.

Try it! If you don’t want to start with advanced electronic engineering, test the online waters by taking a course in a hobby. You can go to one of several university Web sites to do an online quiz to see if it’s for you. For instance, see the Web site of the University of California at Berkeley ( or the Frequently Asked Questions section of the University of Illinois online learning program (

Surprisingly, you can’t rely on name brands in this fast-changing field. A wellknown institution may not necessarily offer more or better online courses than a small community college you’ve never heard of.

Ask questions. Ideally, online courses use the same learning materials (books notes, CD-ROMs, and other) as on-campus versions, are led by a faculty member, limit class size to 10 or 20, encourage interaction with other students, and can be completed without a visit to campus. Also check the listings on the Web site, the “Sloan Consortium Catalog,” a compilation of over 200 better online programs offered by universities, colleges, and community colleges.


In the nation’s largest study of cognitive training, the Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) nationwide clinical trial, researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that training and practice improves the memory, concentration, and problem-solving abilities of people over age 65. The study, as reported in the November 2002 issue of Journal of the American Medical Association suggests that the advances may even be enough to make up for normal losses associated with later age.

And, your mature brain even has some advantages. Age brings a ripeness of understanding. Older students often savor subjects that make younger peers shudder: Shakespeare, art, and theoretical physics. Why? It’s the “been there, done that” factor. Mature students can understand complex, even contradictory realities. Life experience gives you a better understanding of “poignant” or “bittersweet” than Webster’s dictionary ever could.

“Older students have greater familiarity with names, places, and events, and some may have lived through what is being studied—the Great Depression, or World War II, or the civil rights movement,” says Anne Pearson, acting President of ALIROW (Association for Learning in Retirement Organizations in the West), an umbrella organization of senior colleges. “Even if they are not familiar with specific names and dates, older students understand the underlying fundamentals: power, ambition, ideology, failure. They just connect the dots better.”

Your Money Matters

Taxes: Get familiar with what’s known as Section 529 plans, especially if you have an inkling well in advance that you’ll want to hit the books again later in life. Section 529 are college savings plans that offer an attractive way to build savings and provide tax benefits. “Withdrawals from a 529 plan can be used for tuition, fees, books, supplies, and equipment at most accredited institutions. Part-time attendees are included,” according to Joseph Hurley, founder of the Internet site The downside? Some 529 plans offer limited investment options. And there are penalties if the money is used for something other than tuition. For those retirees enrolling in college-degree programs, Lifetime Learning Credit is available to qualified students in full-time, half-time, and less-than half- time programs. There are no restrictions on the number of years for which the credit can be claimed. The Lifetime credit may be used to acquire new skills or improve existing skills. The maximum credit for a tax year is $2,000 (20 percent of a maximum $10,000 of qualified tuition and expenses). As with all tax matters, these plans could change, so ask your accountant.

Special rates: Veterans typically qualify for special tuition rates, and many colleges offer seniors cut-rate tuition (but ask about limitations based on available space, or the number of classes you can take). Some even offer scholarships.

ILR (or LLI) programs offered to seniors charge a nominal membership fee and no charges for courses. Not only will you pay next to nothing for a course, but in many cases you gain priceless privileges to libraries and athletic facilities.

Online costs: Fees for online programs vary substantially, from a few hundred dollars per course to many thousands, depending on the school and the study program. So shop around.

Excerpted from Looking Forward: An Optimist’s Guide to Retirement by Ellen Freudenheim. Copyright © 2004 by Ellen Freudenheim All rights reserved. Excerpted by arrangement with Stewart, Tabori & Chang. $15.95. Available in local bookstores or click here.

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