More retirees are going back to school. Here's how you can, too

  • Retirees who want to expand their knowledge and find more social engagement in might want to consider going back to school.
  • Certain programs — such as lifelong learning institutes and others aimed at retirees — will let you attend classes for a fraction of today's typical college tuition. Other schools may even let you live on campus.
  • The biggest perk of these programs might be the long-lasting social connections that are formed, both experts and students say.

When Barbara Lane and her husband relocated to the Berkshires from New York City, they didn't envision a traditional retirement.

"Ed and I have never seen ourselves as they kind of people who will move down to the warm weather and play bridge and tennis for the rest of our lives," Lane said. "That was never going to work for us."

Lane sought out local classes for older adults at Berkshire Community College. Her husband, Ed, separately pursued his master's in business administration.

Barbara Lane, left, with her husband, Ed, says being a member of Berkshire Community College's Osher Lifelong Learning Institute has changed her retirement for the better.
Barbara Lane
Barbara Lane, left, with her husband, Ed, says being a member of Berkshire Community College's Osher Lifelong Learning Institute has changed her retirement for the better.

Today, Lane not only takes classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Berkshire Community College, she is also a board member. Her husband, a former consulting actuary, now teaches finance and economics as an adjunct professor at other colleges.

"At the end of the day, you're having a glass of wine and preparing dinner," said Lane. "And Ed's got his stories about his students and I've got my stories. It's really been wonderful for us."

For retirees who find themselves with time on their hands and a willingness to learn, taking classes or even going back to school full time may be an appealing option. Colleges and universities are meeting that demand with everything from dedicated lifelong learning programs to on campus living arrangements.

Lifelong learning

Individuals living on a fixed income likely want to avoid the big tuition bills that can come with going back to school.

Fortunately, there are programs designed for older and retired individuals that let you take classes for a fraction of the costs of today's tuition.

The Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes, which receive funding through the Bernard Osher Foundation, provide non-credit, non-graded courses aimed at adults ages 50 and up. Its network includes 122 college and university programs across the country.

At Berkshire Community College's Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, membership is $60 per year, and classes are $50 each. Like other Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes, the program offers scholarships for those who find those costs too steep.

The school's program currently has 1,200 members with two full-time staff members. Its robust schedule — including 26 classes in the fall semester — relies heavily on the help of volunteers.

The Pittsfield, Massachusetts, area, where the school is based, is a popular retirement destination for people who love culture and nature, according to Megan Whilden, executive director of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Berkshire Community College.

That has drawn more of those residents to its classes, which are on everything from current events — such as contemporary gender roles, nuclear weapons and gerrymandering and the right to vote — to memoir writing and fly fishing.

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The program also offers day trips, such as previews of upcoming performances at the Tanglewood Music Center or tours of a local dairy farm.

Many of the students are not your typical senior citizens, according to Whilden, who recalled seeing an 85-year-old woman in a Pussy Riot t-shirt during her first week on the job.

"It's good for blowing up stereotypes, for sure," Whilden said.

Nancy Vale, 87, a professionally trained actress, has found that both teaching and taking classes through the Performing Arts Initiative at the Institute has enabled her to continue to put her acting skills to use.

It has also helped her grow her social circle after her husband of 49 years, Michael, the actor who played the baker in Dunkin Donuts' "Time to make the donuts" commercials, died 10 years ago.

"There's always someone directing something or appearing in something or wanting to put heads together about a workshop or class," Vale said. "I've made a lot of friends."

That support continues outside of the school, which helped to promote to the school community her role in a local production of "The Vagina Monologues."

Active community

The lifelong learning model that many schools follow today was first created at The New School in New York City in 1962.

Today, that program — called the Institute for Retired Professionals — continues to thrive.

Annual membership costs $1,054, and gives participants access to up to three study groups and a regular course at the New School each semester at half price, plus other activities and special events.

The program has about 300 students, with members ranging in age from their 50s to their 90s. Those members use their professional backgrounds — including areas such as human resources or finance — to help run the program.

"Maybe you had a 529 plan that you set up for your children or grandchildren and there's money left over. You can use it for your own education. It's great for continuing education classes." -Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president of research at Savingforcollege.com

"This is about the self-motivation of learning, being involved in an active learning community," said Mary Watson, executive dean of The New School's Schools of Public Engagement.

The average tenure for members is 15 years. If students decide to discontinue their membership, they can convert to alumni members for a $25 lifetime fee.

Like the Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes, the New School offers scholarships for those who have limited resources.

Other options

Retirees who want to go back to school on a budget also have several other options to consider, according to Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president of research at Savingforcollege.com.

Some colleges and universities offer senior citizen tuition waivers. In addition, many community colleges will let senior citizens audit classes for free, provided there is space available, Kantrowitz said.

Companies that provide video lectures or online education programs may also be a low-budget option for learning new information.

Retirees may also want to consider going back to work for a company such as Starbucks or Walmart to get access to the free tuition benefits they offer, Kantrowitz said.

The good news for aspiring students: Any money you have left over in a 529 college savings account can be used to pay for classes, even if you're not pursuing a degree or certificate.

"Maybe you had a 529 plan that you set up for your children or grandchildren and there's money left over," said Kantrowitz. "You can use it for your own education, even if you're not pursing a degree.

"It's great for continuing education classes," he added.

Retirees who will spare no expense in pursuing a college experience may instead want to opt to live on campus.

Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona, is seeing demand for such accommodations.

The university is adding a dorm building to its campus for senior residents. The building, which is scheduled to open in 2020, will include 252 independent living apartments and 52 health-care units. Individuals must be at least 62 to sign up to live there.

So far, almost 90 percent of the units have been sold.

Residents will have access to campus amenities, including an art museum, dog park, indoor pool, restaurants, spa and theater.

A new building at Arizona State University named Mirabella will be devoted to residents ages 62 and up.
Ankrom Moisan
A new building at Arizona State University named Mirabella will be devoted to residents ages 62 and up.

But the biggest perk of all, according to Todd Hardy, managing director at Innovation Zones at ASU, will be the access to campus culture, including performing arts events in the dorm, and the ability to join the community themselves as students, teachers and mentors.

"The young folks learn more effectively when they're exposed to an older generation," Hardy said. "The older generation thrives significantly because of exposure to the younger generation."

To live in the dorm, called Mirabella, residents pay a buy-in fee, which ranges from $378,500 for a one bedroom unit to $810,200 for a two-bedroom penthouse. When a resident dies, 85 percent of that fee is returned to their heirs.

In addition, residents must also pay a monthly fee — which covers activities, dining, housekeeping, shuttles and utilities, as well as other costs — which ranges from $4,195 for a single person in a one bedroom unit to $5,570 for two people living in a penthouse suite.

Record growth

For many Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes across the country, the challenge is keeping up with demand from new students who want to participate.

"In the past couple of years, our growth has just exploded," Whilden said of Berkshire Community College's program. "We've increased our membership by 30 percent — 12 percent just over the past year."

At Northwestern University's Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, where students have access to courses on everything from art in America to how democracies die, membership has grown by 11 percent to 12 percent every year, said Kirsty Montgomery, director of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Northwestern.

"People said they were depressed and then they started to come to classes and started to get involved and made new friends. It has made all the difference in their lives." -Kathy Garthwaite, advisory board president at Vanderbilt University's Osher Lifelong Learning Institute

In 2011, Northwestern's program had 800 members. Today, that total has climbed to 1,400.

As a result, Montgomery said she rarely advertises the program outside of the college community because there is only so much growth the program can take. "It's a good problem to have," she said.

At Bismarck State College in North Dakota, the school's Osher Lifelong Learning Institute plans to grow to 500 members in the next couple of years, from 150 members today.

That target is in keeping with the area's growing retirement community, said Bismarck State College President Dr. Larry Skogen. Skogen, who is also a historian, will be teaching his own course this fall on the Mexican War of 1846 to 1848 as a prelude to the Civil War.

Social connections

But the biggest takeaways from the programs are the social connections that the students establish, according to Norma Clippard, director of the Osher Institute at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

Vanderbilt's program includes a steel drum band, complete with a band camp, and classes on astronomy and American popular music.

For many retirees, this has been life changing, Clippard said, and has let them find new purpose in retirement. Grandparents sometimes run into their own grandchildren — and fellow students — on campus, while other students have met their significant others in class.

"These classes have been a life saver for me, and I've heard a lot of other members say the same thing," said Kathy Garthwaite, who currently serves as advisory board president of Vanderbilt's Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

Garthwaite, 63, found the program after an unexpected early retirement led her to become "bored to death."

Attending the classes has changed her life – and the lives of others – for the better, she said.

"People said they were depressed and then they started to come to classes and started to get involved and made new friends," Garthwaite said. "It has made all the difference in their lives."