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For Boomers, It’s Back To Class Time

Older adults are hitting the books again and taking courses designed just for them


Retirement is often viewed as a time to finally relax. Not for Barbara Nelson.

Instead, the 70-year-old, retired social worker opted to go back to school informally, taking dozens of courses through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI).

Nelson says she feels sharper than she did before she stopped working. “I've taken courses on Shakespeare, the periodic table, the Italian language, cosmology and global economics," she says.

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Billed as a "fitness club for the mind," OLLI is an educational program that offers courses designed for older adults, funded by the Bernard Osher Foundation. The Foundation sponsors 117 programs in all 50 states, all in-person. Its directors expect it to boom as the baby boom generation enters retirement.

Yearning for Learning

OLLI isn’t the only program that lets those over 50 keep learning. A division of Elderhostel, Inc., the Road Scholar is an educational travel organization geared to older adults that offers national and international learning experiences. And many colleges and universities offer classes for credit or to audit.

For those longing to relive their college days, OLLI may be the perfect fit. “OLLI tends to be made up of college-educated folks who really, really seek an intellectual environment that is challenging … It’s basically a liberal arts education for the older adult,” says Sandra Stevenson, executive director of OLLI at the University of Minnesota.

“The group is composed of very vigorous people who love to learn,” Nelson says of her experience in OLLI.

And the best part: no midterm exams, finals or grades.

Each institute differs in terms of fees. Some charge a $200 annual fee that lets users take a couple of longer-term classes and some short ones. Other locations charge fees of $20 per class. Themes and courses offered also vary considerably. But all programs remain committed to the goal of continuing the education for older adults, with course subjects ranging from history to science to knitting.

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Since its conception in 2001, the Osher program has had more than 120,000 members. The program is expected to continue to flourish as boomers discover it, says Kali Lightfoot, executive director at OLLI National Resource Center.

Hitting the Road to Learn

For lifelong learners looking for a scene outside the classroom, consider educational travel programs.

Road Scholar offers beyond-the-classroom exploration of the world. It has 5,500 tours throughout the U.S. and 150 countries led by expert instructors. Go behind-the-scenes of American diplomacy in the Washington D.C. program, or devour the French cuisine (and wine) in Paris while learning about the culture.

Programs vary in duration. Seven to 21-day programs are available, many with international destinations, which often appeal to retirees. Costs for a course typically run from $500 to $1,000, with overseas courses costing around $3,000.

"Our international business is up 30 percent," says JoAnn Bell, vice president of programs at Road Scholar. "We think we'll see tremendous growth as baby boomers become age-eligible for these programs."

(MORE: How Travel Taught Me to Live More Fully and Simply)

Road Scholar also provides travel programs as short as three to five days, too, so its employed members can participate.

The programs tend to attract highly motivated people who are eager to learn. “They want to do more than a typical tourist would," Bell says. "They have a questing for knowledge and interaction with a group. These tours and classes create a lot of friendships."

For seasoned adults, such as Nelson, being part of a lifelong learning program has been enriching. "I would say I've made a lot of my best friends in OLLI because we all have a lot in common … These are my people," she says.

Frank Jossi is a journalist who writes about business, politics and cultural issues.

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