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!
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!
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
What subject would you study if you were going back to college this fall?
Peter Spiers, Senior Vice President of Strategic Outreach, is the author of “Master Class: Living Longer, Stronger, and Happier.”