The New Face of Today’s College Students: Older Adults

Almost exactly fifty years ago, I wrote a series of articles on St. Louis as a center for higher education. There were two big pieces of news at the time. One was the emergence of urban campuses for many major universities, such as the university of Missouri-St. Louis (UMSL); the other was the growing number of “nontraditional students”—meaning those who were older than the customary eighteen-to-twenty-two-year-olds we were accustomed to seeing in college settings.

In the intervening years, what was news then has become routine now. There are more than six dozen urban universities in the United States. Also known as commuter colleges, they have made it possible for students who have jobs or family responsibilities to attend colleges with convenient locations, flexible hours, and parking garages.

Colleges and universities are making it easier than ever for older nontraditional students to go back to school, and many are taking advantage of the opportunity. The number of graduates and postgraduates between the ages of fifty and sixty-four continues to increase every year. But what’s even more interesting is how many adults over the age of sixty-four are signing up for credit and noncredit college-level courses. They are what is known as lifelong learners.

The benefits of lifelong learning for seniors include:

  • The freedom to choose subject matter and courses: There are so many options available to students of all ages, from basic English and math to art, music, and philosophy.
  • No time constraints on study and learning: Older people don’t have to balance work and school schedules with raising children and running households.
  • A chance to make new friends: Going back to school provides opportunities to meet people and form relationships, which becomes more difficult as we get older.

Going back to school may seem daunting, for many reasons: rising tuition costs, facing the unknown, leaving one’s comfort zone, and more. In terms of costs, financial aid, student loans, and even some senior-specific educational programs make lifelong learning increasingly accessible to people of all ages. Yes, it is a challenge to make this move, but many seniors have done it successfully, and continuing to learn has been a life-enriching experience for all of them.

Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes (OLLI) offers noncredit courses with no assignments or grades to adults over age fifty. Since 2001 philanthropist Bernard Osher has made grants from the Bernard Osher Foundation to launch OLLI programs at 120 universities and colleges throughout the United States.[1]            

  • Many in-state colleges partner with OLLI to offer scholarly courses specifically for mature adults aged fifty and older. Topics include humanities, culture, art, health, fitness, history, and more.
  • There are plenty of free e-courses available for computer-savvy seniors. For example, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT’s) OpenCourseWare project offers free courses spanning a number of topics online for the sole purpose of providing challenging academic content to the public.
  • Other digital opportunities include TED Talks, a collection of educational videos covering a variety of topics; LibriVox, a large selection of free public domain audiobooks; and Academic Earth®, a catalog of free college courses from a number of top universities.
  • The Lifetime Learning Credits are worth up to $2,000 per tax return, and there is no limit to the number of times it can be claimed. The American opportunity tax credit is worth up to $2,500 per eligible student annually, but this credit can only be claimed four times.

For students in their later years who take advantage of these opportunities, learning is indeed a lifelong endeavor. Continuing to learn is stimulating, enriching, and life-prolonging. Those three benefits should be enough to convince anyone to join the growing number of seniors who are part of this growing trend.