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Retirees Return to College Just for the Fun of It

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You never thought about going back to school—that is, until you retired. Now that you have time on your hands, you're searching for intellectual stimulation. Fortunately, a growing number of universities and colleges are offering academic courses that cater to the retiree seeking to learn something new.

See Also: 8 Ways Baby-Boomers Are Reinventing Retirement

Stanley Darer, 67, worked in finance for 35 years, and he wanted to explore anything except studying money. He has been taking courses on ballet and music at the Encore Program for Lifelong Enrichment at North Carolina State University since he retired six years ago. "I was ready for a liberal arts education," he says.

He has also been going to as many concerts and recitals as he can find. "Like most retirees, I was looking for things to keep busy, and I found it in senior learning," says Darer, who moved to Raleigh, N.C., from New York to be near his grandchildren.

Retirees such as Darer are part of a phenomenon called lifelong learning, which began more than 30 years ago but is gaining new popularity as baby boomers retire. These programs provide ways for seniors to increase their knowledge and explore new interests in ways they never could when they were saddled with tough work schedules and family obligations. They also offer opportunities for retirees to make social connections with people of similar life experiences and interests. "Continuing education for seniors is crucial for their mental and physical health," says retired mathematician Stanley Schmidt, 74, of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., who has been teaching science and math courses for 20 years at Marist College’s Center for Lifetime Study, which is organized and run by seniors.

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In choosing courses, you can be whimsical or serious, find new passions or just fill in a knowledge gap. There are heavyweight subjects, such as "Current Trends: Technology and Culture" at Washington University in St. Louis and "The Civil War" at Regis College in Weston, Mass. On the lighter side, you can learn about Cole Porter, George Gershwin and other American songwriter greats by taking "They Wrote the Songs" at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. Or you can go practical by taking classes on smart-phone photography, Microsoft Word or personal-finance topics, such as a course at Kellogg Community College in Battle Creek, Mich., on making money from your garden.

A big attraction is the freedom to come and go if you want to miss a class or drop it. In many programs, there are no tests or textbooks, and there's lots of laughing, teachers report, because retirees are taking courses they want to take, not to meet college requirements. And the atmosphere can be informal. "An adult group is not shy. They don't always want to follow the rules in asking questions," says Harry Wolf, 90, of Walnut Creek, Cal., who worked as a human resources manager until he retired at 65.

If you're looking for retiree-oriented college courses, your first stop could be the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. The institute sponsors programs for people 50 and older at 117 university and college campuses around the U.S. Before taking a course, you must become a member. Many of the non-credit courses are taught by professors, but others are developed and taught by the volunteer retiree participants who are experts in their fields. The Osher institute has 113,000 dues-paying members. (Find a program near you at www.osherfoundation.org/index.php?olli_list.)

Membership in Osher programs and enrollment in many other college programs such as the one at the Marist center typically run between $200 and $600 a year. Often, there is no additional charge to take a course. Depending on the program, you could take up to four classes for an eight-week session.

At many programs, you simply register. But some programs have slightly more-rigorous admission standards. For example, the 36-year-old Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement generally bases admission on your academic or career background as well as a willingness to run a study group.

The Harvard program, open to 550 students a year, offers 50 to 60 courses a semester for 12-week sessions. The only requirement: weekly reading assignments. Among its courses: "China's Rise and What It Means to Asia" and "Theory of Relativity, Quantum Mechanics and the Nature of Reality."

The Harvard program costs $800 for up to three courses a year. The students range in age from 60 to 95, says director Leonie Gordon. "Retirement is a new experience, a reinvention of self," Gordon says. "People are discovering talents, passions, curiosities they may not have known before."

It's also worth asking nearby colleges if you can audit a class. Many colleges allow seniors older than 60 to attend regular courses. The University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, for example, charges seniors $500 to sit in on selected undergraduate courses—from "The Age of Chaucer" to "Criminal Justice." If there's space available, seniors in Ohio can audit classes free as part of Kent State University's Senior Guest Program.

Living the Campus Life

A growing number of retirees who want intensive intellectual immersion are moving to university towns, attracted by culture and learning opportunities. And many colleges are building retirement communities—or creating relationships with existing ones—that are considerably nicer than your old college dorm.

Retirees who live on the Tuscaloosa campus of the University of Alabama are invading the classroom. In 2010, the university bought a senior complex that's right on the campus. Capstone Village rents 108 one- and two-bedroom apartments and 22 garden homes designed for independent living. It has 13 assisted-living units and 16 for memory care. Apartment rents range from $2,600 to $4,400 a month. The program organizers regularly plan outings to football and basketball games, concerts and other activities on campus.

The University of Alabama's Osher Lifelong Learning Institute offers 80 courses a semester for its 700 members. About 30 Capstone Village residents regularly take courses, such as "Favorite Military Leaders" and "Two American Wars Through American Art."

Linda Shumilas, 65, a retired insurance executive from Florence, Ala., moved to Capstone Village with her husband last December. The university was their magnet. "The hardest part is trying to plan our schedules so we don't have too many things to do," says Shumilas, who, as one of her first classes, took a course on the jellyfish of Palau taught by a biologist. She's also dropped in to audit university classes for free, one of the bonuses of living at Capstone Village.

If you would like to get out of the classroom, choose a course that includes an educational trip. North Carolina State University's Encore Program for Lifelong Enrichment offers 200 courses at three locations for some 3,000 participants. One of its popular offerings earlier this year was a four-day trip to St. Louis that cost $995, including the flight. The field trip for the 15 participants was offered as part of two classes at the university, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and "Show Me St. Louis."

The group visited Mark Twain's birthplace in Hannibal and saw museum collections of the work of Missouri writers at Washington University. The students also visited a cemetery where famous Missourians are buried: playwright Tennessee Williams, late 19th-century novelist Kate Chopin, humanitarian Dr. Thomas Dooley III, freed slave Dred Scott and Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman.

At Kellogg Community College, 34 seniors at its Institute for Learning in Retirement took a one-day trip in March to visit the traveling exhibit of items salvaged from the Titanic at the Grand Rapids Public Museum. In a recent course on the history of baseball, the class went to a Detroit Tigers game. Later this year, a class on "No Fear Shakespeare" will visit the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, Canada. On the outings, "the camaraderie is extensive," says program coordinator Connie Dawe.

Many retirees teach courses based on their expertise. Herbert Eder, 77, a retired professor of geography and environmental studies at California State University, East Bay, helped create and secure a grant for the Osher program there. The program now has 1,100 members and offers 20 to 30 courses each trimester.

Eder, who lives in San Ramon, teaches courses with field trips on the environment and on the geography of California wine country. "The best thing about teaching seniors is they don't raise their hands during a lecture to ask, 'Will this be on the test?' " Eder says.

What drives him? "Seniors ask the best questions. They are learning for the love of learning," he says.

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