Higher Learning

By Cindy Cafferty

November 20, 2008 5 min read

HIGHER LEARNING

Going back to school has never been more fun for older adults

Cindy Cafferty

Creators News Service

Ah, college life: The opportunity to travel abroad, immerse yourself in other cultures, go forward in the quest for higher learning and engage with a community of your peers.

If you missed out on the fun in your 20s, don't think you've lost your chance.

With the baby boomer generation changing the face of retirement, colleges and universities are seeing a new population emerge on campuses across the country: The nontraditional student.

According to a 2006 study conducted by American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), between 1993 and 2003, some of the greatest increases in college enrollment were found with people over the age of 50 (56.4 percent).

The increase can be attributed to boomers seeking second careers or a competitive edge in a fluctuating job market. Many older adults, though, are returning to school or a higher learning environment simply because they want to. A good part of the older generation is interested in cultivating their interests and are seeking opportunities for lifelong learning, which includes studying abroad.

"We cater to the 55 plus demographic; individuals who want to travel and learn at the same time," said Jim Moses, president of Elderhostel, a nonprofit organization that provides older adults the opportunity for education across the nation and around the world. "We make it easy for seniors to find opportunities to be part of the learning community."

Lifelong learning, Moses explained, refers to the fact that learning occurs throughout life, and it shouldn't stop just because you retire.

Although the education opportunities are not part of a university or college curriculum, the organization works with universities' extended education departments to offer seminars, hands-on experience and the chance for boomers and beyond to immerse themselves in other cultures. Currently they work with 800 universities across the world with a variety of subjects to choose from.

"The type of learning depends on the program," said Moses. "We offer some technical learning such as digital photography or Internet skills, but primarily we focus on leisure learning."

The classes aren't centered upon degree accruement, but many participants of the Elderhostel program have gone on to continue their formal education after discovering a real passion for what they had been studying under the tutorship of the program.

"Over the years people have gone from Elderhostel programs to more formal learning environments and programs," said Moses. "The program has stimulated an enormous interest in education, and has also stimulated a movement where universities have started building retirement communities in or around campuses where seniors take on enrichment studies."

Elderhostel offers $300,000 a year in scholarships for seniors to participate in its programs and offers day programs ranging from $35 to $100. There are also commuter programs for those individuals who are still working or can't make the commitment to traveling.

In addition, the nonprofit has launched a new initiative over the past two years to bring Elderhostel programs into continuing care facilities to provide intellectual stimulation to those who may be too frail to participate in advanced or lifelong learning programs otherwise. So far there are 100 facilities participating nationwide.

While Elderhostel is a springboard for continuing education, universities and colleges have begun to catch on as well.

According to AASCU, community colleges have been the primary source for attracting re-entry or first time nontraditional students. But with a host of state universities offering extended education opportunities as well as evening and Saturday classes, there's never been a better time to start thinking about how you can enrich your golden years or enhance the career you want to pursue.

"If you could dream it, we could do it," Moses said.

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