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It's not just children who head back to the classroom every fall. Retirees have a variety of options to take college-level classes at affordable prices and sometimes even for free. Here are some ways to increase your knowledge in retirement, without straining your bank account.
Audit classes for free. Retirees who audit college classes get to attend interesting lectures, but no grades or credits are provided. And homework and other class projects are often optional. For example, Florida residents of at least a year who are 60 and older may enroll in tuition-free classes as audit students at the University of Central Florida, if the class isn't already filled up by paying students. "Full-time degree seeking students get a first crack at those seats, and then whatever is available opens up to the adult learner," says Ruth Vedvik, a principal at the education consulting firm Hardwick Day and co-author of "The Financial Aid Handbook: Getting the Education You Want for the Price You Can Afford."
Get a senior citizen tuition wavier. Some colleges offer senior citizen tuition waivers to retirees who are above a certain age and meet other requirements, which allows them to earn college credit without paying any tuition. In Massachusetts, state residents ages 60 and older may enroll in undergraduate or graduate courses at state and community colleges, including the University of Massachusetts, without being charged for tuition, although other fees may be required. "Some professors really like this because someone who is older has a more mature viewpoint and can contribute to the classroom discussion," says Mark Kantrowitz, senior vice president and publisher of Edvisors.com and author of "Twisdoms about Paying for College."
Take advantage of campus amenities. Taking classes about fascinating subjects isn't the only way to enjoy college life. Colleges tend to host speakers, concerts, politicians and sporting events, and local residents are frequently invited to take part. Some colleges might allow retirees to use the libraries, athletic facilities and other campus perks. Even something as simple has heading to the campus coffee shop with a classmate can make the college experience more enjoyable. "There are a lot of guest lectures that happen on college campuses, and there are a few of them that are probably restricted to current students, but many, if not most, are open to the public, and participation from community members is more than welcome," Vedvik says.
Consider campus life. Some colleges have constructed retirement communities on or near campus. Retirees who live in these communities typically get access to a variety of campus amenities and have a chance to participate in campus life, while living in a residence that is far nicer than the typical dorm room. "Many colleges are either creating developments nearby, or there are existing developments nearby where you can take advantage of everything that the college offers," Kantrowitz says. "If the college has a medical school, it usually contributes to improve the quality of care in the local area."
Take classes just for seniors. Some retirees enjoy sharing a lecture hall with 20-somethings working toward a degree, while others would prefer to take classes that are populated with other retiree students. There are 119 Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes on college campuses, including Colorado State University, Duke University and Dartmouth College, which provide non-credit courses without tests or grades specifically designed for people over 50. "The participation in campus life is so important," says Barbara Vacarr, director of the Encore.org higher education initiative. "It's bringing people into a peer group where they reflect on their experience."
Try online courses. You can take online courses from home on your computer without ever having to leave your house. Coursera and edX both offer free online courses taught by professors at major universities. There is a charge only if you want a formal certificate verifying that you have successfully completed the course requirements. Online courses can be an especially good fit for people who have difficultly driving but want to keep learning about new things. "This demographic of 50-plus adults are more tech savvy than we think they are," Vacarr says.