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7 Things You Must Know About Lifetime Learning

It’s never too late to go back to school, for a degree or for pleasure.

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1. You have plenty of options.

Older adults may enroll in a degree program, sit in on regular college courses, attend classes with peers or take courses online. Many colleges and universities allow older adults to audit or take classes for credit, as well as host lifelong learning programs for adults 50 and over. A good place to start is at aseniorcitizenguideforcollege.com.

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2. Age has its privileges.

If you are at least 60 to 65, a number of public colleges will let you enroll in credit courses without paying tuition, if space is available. (You may be responsible for fees and textbooks.) Some states have instituted auditing programs for older adults at their state schools. Other colleges may permit auditing; if you don’t see information on a school’s Web site, call.

3. You could earn a degree.

The average price tag for a master’s degree in 2011–12 was nearly $23,000. You may qualify for financial aid; there are no age restrictions on federal loan programs. But be sure you don’t borrow more than you can afford to pay back, says Mark Kantro­witz, senior vice president and publisher of Edvisors.com. One strategy: Stretch out the payments as long as possible. You’ll minimize the monthly hit on your income. And federal loans are discharged when you die (that’s not the case with most private loans).

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4. And get a tax break.

The Lifetime Learning Credit is worth up to $2,000 a year for qualified education expenses, and, unlike the American Opportunity Tax Credit, it is available for any number of years. You can claim the credit to pay for tuition, textbooks and supplies as long as your modified adjusted gross income is less than $65,000 in 2015, or $130,000 if married filing jointly. Or you could start a 529 college-savings plan with yourself as the owner and beneficiary. Most states offer a tax break for 529 plan contributions.

5. Sign up with OLLI.

Not ready to commit to a degree? Your local college or university may host an Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, or OLLI for short (see www.nrc.northwestern.edu/find-an-olli-near-you). You generally pay a membership fee to access courses on everything from European history to shooting videos with an iPhone. At the University of North Carolina–Asheville, for example, a one-year OLLI membership costs $70 and includes access to more than 280 courses. Even if there’s no OLLI in your vicinity, you may find a local school that offers a similar program.

6. Explore online.

Massive open online courses or MOOCs are college-level courses available to anyone (see Free Classes to Boost Your Career). Search listings from the major providers (including Udacity, Coursera and edX) at class-central.com). Few MOOCs offer credit, so look for courses that pique your curiosity. For technical and creative skills, browse the tutorials at Lynda.com. Lynda subscriptions start at $20 a month for unlimited access to all videos, but your library card may let you log in free.

7. Hit the road.

Why learn about ancient Peru in a classroom when you can climb to the ruins of Machu Picchu? Some alumni associations, museums and nonprofit groups, notably Road Scholar, offer educational tours around the world. These tours can be pricey, so ask whether the company has any “special offers.”