Higher Education as a Senior

Exciting news to report: the mental image of senior citizens as doddering, forgetful, declining members of society is falling away with great speed. In its place is a more nuanced vision of what elderly life can be: active, fulfilled, busy, and intellectually stimulating. This last element has been advanced by the return of many senior citizens to higher education, not as educators, but as students.

For those who had long wanted to pursue a different type of education, or have even been struck recently by the desire to learn something new: the time has finally arrived! Colleges, universities, and adult education centers are responding to this newly identified demand by creating simplified paths for seniors to the classroom, and in topic areas that they’re interested in.

Kiplinger’s notes that this re-entry to the classroom comes at just the right time, and with the right benefits to be attractive to this segment of learners.

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Programs for Seniors

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.

The social connections that these opportunities can provide are invaluable; loneliness, helplessness, and boredom in senior citizens, after their long-cultivated daily routines are replaced with the less frenetic pace of retirement, is well documented. The schedule of classes and associated activities can create a new sense of structure and purpose that might feel missing.

But the benefits that come with seniors in the classroom aren’t limited to seniors themselves. The experiences they can share in an otherwise “traditionally-aged” classroom can inform the thinking of younger students with less life experience. To quote Steve Jobs from a 1990s interview with Wired magazine,

A lot of people in our industry haven't had very diverse experiences. So they don't have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one's understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.

This narrow framework of thinking is far from an industry-specific ailment, but is one that seniors can help combat by their very presence alone. Their varied experience can help groups push past one-size-fits-all solutions or perspectives toward more nuanced classroom conversation.

With that said, fellow students or instructors may not be prepared to work with an older student. Growing pains may arise as all parties involved make this adjustment, but, once resolved, it can be an educational experience in its own right for all involved.

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Balance in Senior Personal Life

On a fixed income, it may seem unfeasible to pursue further education, especially in a landscape where costs for higher education are at historic highs. However, there are many options available that make this cost less of a burden.

According to US News and World Report, about 60% of colleges and universities have tuition waivers available for senior citizens. Proof of state residency and other documentation may be required, but this option will leave you responsible only for the fees associated with attendance.

Schools also award scholarships for adult learners, awarded for merit and need. Consult with your school of choice’s financial aid office to find more information about these opportunities.

Or, if you’re simply open to taking the course but not completing assignments or exams, you could work with a professor to audit it. This allows you to take in the lectures and information shared, while interacting with fellow students, without earning credit.

Another cost-effective option for courses is the community college, which is often more affordable in its own right, but which may offer scholarships as well. For those seeking to learn among like-minded and like-aged classmates, community colleges often offer courses specifically geared toward seniors, so you could find yourself in good company when you arrive on campus.

Heading back to the classroom in later years can seem intimidating, at times, but it need not hold you back from pursuing this new path. Contrary to common thought, the brain is equipped to learn and thrive well into old age, and committing to continued education is one way to facilitate this process.

Whether it’s to learn a new work-based skill or simply to keep you active in this new chapter, know that there is a place for you in these classrooms, and that you can make far more of an impact than you know.

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