How to Go Back to College for Free

Admit it, you were one of those kids who actually looked forward to the start of school and thought September was the true New Year. In elementary school you loved the smell of freshly sharpened pencils, in high school your pulse quickened at the sight of a stack of unsullied notebooks, and in college a thick, new course catalog set you dreaming of intellectual worlds to conquer.

Formal learning is now probably decades in your rear-view mirror, but — thanks to modern technology and institutions never more supportive of learning in retirement — you can go back to college for free (or nearly free)!

We’ve chosen three interesting topics — The Novels of Jane Austen, America’s Gilded Age and Charles Darwin and the Theory of Evolution — to illustrate five different ways to learn after college. They’re in a specific order; if you’re an introvert start at the top, if you’re an extrovert, start at the bottom. Once you’ve picked the approach that’s right for you, let us know what you plan to study this fall!

 

Syllabus “Borrowing”

Remember these? A typical college-level syllabus is a detailed road map for learning about a specific subject and includes course objectives, reading lists and all the rules, schedules and expectations you need if you’re actually enrolled in the class.  Hundreds of them can be found online. Just start Googling! 

Novels of Jane Austen:     

  • Jane Austen and Popular Culture (University of Pennsylvania) — In this course students watch film adaptations of Austen’s novels, including the 1995 film "Clueless."  You could do that at home, too!
  • Jane Austen (University of Wyoming) — There’s a link in this syllabus to the family trees of the characters in Austen’s novels.

America’s Gilded Age:

  • Topics in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (City University of New York) — An article called “Men Are from the Gilded Age, Women Are From the Progressive Era” sounds interesting!
  • 19th-Century U.S. History Topic: Gilded Age (University of Oregon) — This syllabus nicely connects the course to the present day: “A course on the Gilded Age is particularly timely because many observers are saying that we are currently living in a "second Gilded Age," because growing inequality is reminiscent of the inequality of the 1870s-1890s.”

Charles Darwin and the Theory of Evolution:

  • The Darwin Course (University of Arkansas, The Honors College) — This description really gets my back-to-school geek pulse going:  “The course will examine Darwin, his life and times, the philosophical implications of the interface between science and religion, the impact of evolution on literature, the science of evolution, and legal issues resulting from the inclusion of evolution in school science curricula.”
  • Evolutionary Theory and Processes (Rutgers University) — The course focuses more on the science of evolution right up to the most current thinking on the topic, and is definitely designed for the layperson.  I’m going to add Endless Forms Most Beautiful to my reading list.


Great Courses/Online Lectures

If you prefer to be guided by an expert through your chosen subject, a series of audio or video lectures by a top professor is a great way to go. Videos from The Great Courses are the gold standard in the commercial realm, but there are also tons of free options on the internet. (A website called Open Culture is a great Internet source for free video and audio lectures and much more.) 

Novels of Jane Austen:

America’s Gilded Age:

Charles Darwin and the Theory of Evolution:

 

Auditing

Not satisfied with doing your learning at home? If there’s a college campus nearby, there’s a good chance that you can audit a class there for free. A website called The PennyHoarder has a great listing, state by state, of colleges and universities that offer reduced or free college tuition to boomers and beyond.  Here’s a sampling of the courses we found on our three topics, all on campuses where seniors have special privileges.

Novels of Jane Austen:

  • Austen (Literature 3673), State University of New York (SUNY), Purchase
  • The English Novel:  19th Century (ENL 3122), University of Florida, Gainesville

America’s Gilded Age:

  • United States History:  1877-1920 (History 378), California State University, Long Beach
  • Gilded Age to Progressive Era, 1877-1920, (History 3014), Ohio State University, Columbus

Charles Darwin and the Theory of Evolution:

  • Ecology, Evolution & Society (Bio 301), University of Texas, Austin
  • History of Human Evolution (ANTH 242), University of Illinois, Champagne-Urbana

 

MOOCs, OCWs, etc.

If you want the give-and-take and an opportunity to test your wits against classmates, there’s a fast-growing movement in online education, spawning new acronyms like MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), OCW (Open Courseware) and SPOC (Small Personalized Online Course). There are a large number of MOOC platforms, including well-known companies and organizations like Coursera and edX.  Many MOOC courses are free and provide options for interacting with faculty and other students.   

Novels of Jane Austen:

America’s Gilded Age:

Charles Darwin and the Theory of Evolution:

 

Lifelong Learning Institutes

Now we’ve reached the extrovert end of the spectrum!  Lifelong Learning Institutes (LLIs) are community-based organizations where retired people come together to learn about a bewildering variety of topics. There are more than 400 LLIs in the United States, and Road Scholar's directory of LLIs is searchable by state.  Most LLI courses offer a full participatory classroom experience with no tests or grades, typically facilitated rather than taught. LLIs aren’t free, but membership is typically very inexpensive; an LLI membership is a great bargain for any older or retired person interested in learning.

Novels of Jane Austen:

  • ISU Performing Arts:  Sense and Sensibility, Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Indiana State University, Terre Haute, Ind.
  • Jane Austen:  Her Books and Her World, Five College Learning in Retirement, Northampton, Mass.
  • Jane Austen for the Contemporary Reader, Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Dartmouth, Hanover, N.H.
  • Jane Austen’s “Northanger Abbey,” Lifelong Learning Institute, University of Green Bay, Wisc.

America’s Gilded Age:

  • America in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, Huntsville, Ala.
  • The Gilded Age, Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Dartmouth, Hanover, N.H.

Charles Darwin and the Theory of Evolution:

  • Charles Darwin:  Reluctant Revolutionary, Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement, Cambridge, Mass.
  • Wonders of Evolution, Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at University of California, Davis
  • Evolution of Evolution, Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at University of Georgia, Athens

 

Road Scholar Programs

When the semester ends, we back-to-school nerds also love putting down our pencils, closing our notebooks and heading out for some experience and adventure.  After you’ve been back to college for free, why not consider these Road Scholar programs to round out all that book learning!

Novels of Jane Austen:

The World of Jane Austen and the Regency Period

The works of Jane Austen come alive as you discuss her most popular characters and themes, and enjoy activities such as a lakeside promenade, archery and evening theater.

 

America’s Gilded Age:

The Gilded Age 

From the expansion of the railroads to the beginnings of baseball, learn about America’s Gilded Age and how this pivotal era changed the country.

 

Charles Darwin and the Theory of Evolution:

The Galápagos: Natural and Cultural History

 

What subject would you study if you were going back to college this fall?

 


 
Peter Spiers
Peter Spiers, Senior Vice President of Strategic Outreach, is the author of “Master Class: Living Longer, Stronger, and Happier.”