The Class Goes Gray
Retirees head back to college, and what's not to like? They often don't need to study for exams-or even pay tuition
Al Green worked for nearly 40 years before he was able to retire. But a life of leisure wasn't quite what he thought it would be. "I got bored playing golf," says Green, 80,of his 20 years of retirement in Florida. "And my wife didn't like the summers." As Green started to ponder a new retirement plan, many of his fondest memories centered on Pennsylvania State University, from which he graduated in 1947. So, Green and his wife moved back to State College, to take classes at Penn State.
College, of course, has changed since Green left campus. "There were 7,000 kids on campus when I was there," he recalls. Today, there are more than 40,000. That's just one of the changes. Jeoffrey Stross, board president of University Commons, a near-campus retirement community in Ann Arbor, Mich., says: "People have very fond memories of their time in college, and when they come back 40 or 50 years later it's different. Not only is the college different and the town different, but life is different."
Auditors. And there's no place where these differences are more apparent than in the classroom. Some 47,000 people over age 65 were enrolled in college in October 2004, the latest year for which the Census Bureau has data. But this number doesn't include people like Green who live in retirement communities affiliated with a campus and who audit classes, a statistic that is not tracked nationally. Some universities, like Princeton, report that the number of auditors has doubled since 2001 while others, like Penn State, say the stream of auditors has remained steady.
As retirees attend college classes, an intergenerational dynamic is unfolding. A typical undergraduate student might celebrate when a professor needs to cancel a class, while a senior citizen is more likely to feel disappointed. "Older students have a slightly different agenda than the average undergraduate who may be taking this course because it's a requirement," says Theresa Lafer, an instructor at Penn State who has taught several classes that include both retirees and traditional students. It's also very rare for an older student to miss even an early-morning class. Of course, since seniors often audit classes, they don't have the pressures of grades, exams, and papers.
Senior students may at first cluster together in classes. "When you have a class that's divided, with many adults versus as many traditional-age students, sometimes they separate into age cohorts," Lafer says. "But once they start talking to each other, it is quite clear that they learn from each other's experiences."
Green enjoys interacting with the undergraduate students as much as he likes the classes themselves. "You don't realize until you sit there how many changes you have seen that these kids haven't seen," he says. "When you come from Florida, where everybody is your age, it's kind of refreshing to realize there are people out there who still have their life ahead of them."
Voice of experience. The most popular classes among senior citizens are history, literature, and philosophy. "None of the things I'm studying right now are things I had courses in of any consequence in any of my earlier education," says Lance Friedsam, 67, a retiree auditing classes in art history and philosophy at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. But Friedsam has visited art museums all over the world with his wife, who is an art historian, something few traditional undergraduates can boast. Especially in history courses, professors will sometimes draw on retirees' knowledge for classroom discussion. "The teacher refers to them a lot more than usual," says Nadine Rudolph, 19, a sophomore marketing major at Penn State who has taken several courses with retired classmates. "They'll talk about something from the '60s and look at the other adults."