Forget golf — why seniors should go back to school

If you want to stay active and keep your mind sharp, there’s nothing better.

  • By Paul Brandus,
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Who says college is for kids?

While many seniors golf, putter around in the garden or travel, others are heading back to campus, as another school year gets under way. And why not? All 50 states and the District of Columbia have programs that make it easy—and in some cases free—for residents over a certain age to expand their minds and learn something new.

Considering that college costs a small fortune these days—for the 2017-2018 school year the average cost of tuition and fees was $34,740 at private schools, $9,970 for state residents at public colleges and $25,620 for out-of-state residents attending public universities, the opportunity to learn on the cheap is truly an incredible bargain.

Of course, in most cases, you only get to “audit” classes — in other words, attend lectures without earning actual credits toward a degree. But in some states and in some schools, you can. Two examples of colleges where seniors can earn a degree for essentially nothing include the giant California State University system and the University of Maryland. You have to be a resident of the state, of course, and things like registration fees and books aren’t covered; you might also need a laptop computer if you don’t have one. But the big enchilada—tuition? That’s on the house. Again, all this depends on where you live, how old you are, and so forth.

Community colleges may also offer cheap or even free classes. You’re probably familiar with community colleges near you, but if not a good resource is the The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC); on the left side of the home page you’ll see a red box that says “Find A College.” Start there.

Another good resource is the Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes (OLLI). Launched in 2000, it has spread nationwide and is now affiliated with 123 colleges and universities, including elite schools like Johns Hopkins, Duke and Carnegie-Mellon. Here is a complete list.

There are even opportunities at the very tiptop of American higher education. Stanford, Yale and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are among those schools that let you audit select courses online free of charge. Again, you won’t get an actual degree, but if you want to stay active, keep your mind sharp and learn something new, there’s nothing better.

Others, like Georgetown, let you audit classes for a nominal $50 fee, on a space-available basis. Considering that full-time tuition at the ritzy Washington school this coming year is $55,440, that’s unbelievable.

But while learning for learning’s sake, for the sheer joy of accumulating knowledge and expanding one’s horizons, is wonderful, there are also practical matters to consider. For millions of seniors, financial pressures — lack of pensions and minimal personal savings, along with soaring health care costs — make it impossible to retire. For them, working isn’t optional, it’s mandatory.

So instead of taking a class in, say, “Film Noir Classics of the 1940s” or “History of the Cold War,” consider learning something that can help boost your current earnings or even shift to a new field. A potential employer may be impressed that you audited classes, but if you need, say, a certificate showing that you took a course or a brief program, you’ll probably have to pay for it. But even older students can get scholarships, financial aid and/or reimbursement from an employer. Do not practice what I call “self-discrimination,” meaning that you assume you’re too old to go back to school, too old to get a scholarship, too old to learn something new. You’re never too old to do anything. Don’t be a prisoner of your own mind.

And I don’t care what others tell you: You’re not too old to switch careers, either. It may be harder, you have to push, but you can do it. Want job security and good money? Here are two examples of rapidly growing fields with huge shortages of workers:

Cybersecurity

This is a field that essentially didn’t exist a generation ago, but today is growing rapidly. For example, in the Washington, D.C., area where I live, there are companies galore that can’t find enough workers. Two years at a community college or even one year, may be enough to get your foot in the door. And while it’s true that older workers, even in a hot labor market, can have trouble finding employment, industries that are growing so quickly and are so hungry for workers, may be attracted to mature, stable employees who might happen to have a gray hair or two.

Nursing

There is a need for nurses everywhere, as 10,000 baby boomers retire each day. If you need—or want—to keep working, and want to switch careers, this is about as solid—pay and job-security-wise—as it gets. Here’s a good starting point.

Learning is a lifelong endeavor. For all the things we worry about these days, I think this is actually a golden time for older Americans who want or need to keep acquiring knowledge. Knowledge is more accessible than ever, easier to acquire than ever. Hit the books and have fun.

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