By Amanda Lilly, McClatchy-Tribune
It is a recurrent theme these days that the “baby boomer” generation is beginning to reach the age of retirement. This bulging population has been called a vital cohort for consumer spending and has been designated as a critical target-group for politicians trying to garner the most votes. But the boomers as a future student population? Now, that is something new.
It has been coined the “learning in retirement movement,” where the process of growing older and retiring from the workplace does not necessarily have to mean retiring from personal progression.
There are many opportunities for boomers to stay mentally active and get involved with local education institutions.
One of the first options is to audit a course at a nearby university. This allows you to attend lectures and interact with other students, but since it is not for credit, you are not required to take tests or write papers.
Many states have laws that require higher education institutions to allow seniors to audit a class on a space-basis. For example, in South Carolina, if you are a tax-paying resident 60 years or older, you can attend university classes on a space basis for $125 per course. Some institutions allow you to do this for free, or will offer some form of financial assistance.
Similar to this option is actually attending a community college, where courses are commonly offered specifically for students age 50 and older. Although not usually free, community college courses are generally more affordable.
“Community colleges are everywhere,” said Mary Sue Vickers, director of the Plus 50 initiative for the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC). “There are over 1,200 across the country and 90 percent of the population is within driving distance to at least one of them.”
A pilot program launched in 2008 to coincide with when the boomers were beginning to retire, the AACC Plus 50 Initiative is currently working with 20 community colleges to create or expand campus programs to engage the older population. The initiative has three main focus areas: personal enrichment, workforce training and community volunteering.
Vickers considers one of the program’s greatest achievement thus far to be its “rapid and effective response to the economic downturn.”
“We offered job fairs and counseling,” said Vickers. “We even had resume classes for all of those who had not had to revise their resumes in many years.”
Another advantage to community colleges is that you are interspersed with students of all ages, which Vickers explained is “more reflective of the workforce.” These local higher-education institutions also are often more communityfocused, allowing you to become more involved with the people who live near you and have similar interests.
Furthering this chance to connect with your community while continuing your education are Lifelong Learning Institutes (LLIs) and other similar programs. These organizations basically act as schools without grades or tests. A host college must sponsor the program, however they are typically self-governed, with a committee of volunteers designing the curriculum.
“We like to say we’re under the ‘auspices’ of the college,” explained Claire Robinson, director of the Center for Creative Retirement (CCR) at the College of Charleston in South Carolina.
“The main contact we have with the actual college is that many of its professors guest-lecture at our classes.”
The CCR offers lectures once a week during the average school year, from September to May. Its lecturers mostly include community leaders and professors at the university. A few examples of this year’s courses include a discussion about Charleston’s future with the town mayor, a speech about India-Pakistan relations with a former diplomat to India, and a debate about this year’s main election issues.
“It really is a personal benefit,” said Robinson. “You can take away from it what you want.”
LLIs are also a great way to meet people, as Kali Lightfoot, executive director at the National Resource Center for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes, points out.
“Many people lose their network when they retire,” Lightfoot said. “This is one way to keep that going because you’re signing up for a class with people who are interested in the same thing.”
Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes are specifically liberal artsbased and often also offer special events, trips, speakers and other social activities for its members.
They encourage older adults to stay engaged intellectually and socially, while experiencing something “novel and complex.”
——— LEARN MORE There are LLIs in all 50 states, with 118 Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes and over 300 institutes that belong to the Elderhostel Institute Network (EIN), a voluntary association of LLIs that is funded by Elderhostel Inc. To find an LLI nearest you, visit http://www.roadscholar.org/ein/map—usca.asp.