Seniors Turn to Education for Retirement Activity

The concept of retirement has evolved. Instead of focusing on the golf course and the bridge table, today’s retirees are showing up on college campuses, or at least they were until the pandemic set in. Still, seniors are turning to education as one of their primary interests in retirement, and there are lots of opportunities to consider in both the real and virtual worlds.

With increased longevity, a growing number of people will spend almost as many years in retirement as they did working. As a result, retirement is more active than ever before. 

Universities, community colleges, and online schools are offering more and more opportunities for seniors to take classes, everything from the history of rock and roll to smartphone photography, as well as hot topics about current events and personal finance. And if you’re not seeking a degree, the cost is usually very manageable. Many regional high schools offer adult programs, as well.

Why Adult Schools and Online Learning Are So Important

“It helps keep me mentally healthy,” said Steve Danowitz of Cheltenham, Pennsylvania. “You want to keep your mind as active as possible.” Danowitz, 74, is a retired Philadelphia school teacher, who has been taking classes at the Temple University branch of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) for the past four years.

Contrary to popular belief, which said our brains don’t change much after early childhood, the brains of older adults are still very capable of learning new material. In fact, it helps keep us sharp. Neuroscientists have discovered that the brain is elastic at every stage of life, according to Angela Duckworth, a prominent author (“Grit”) and a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.

Adult school participants say these programs give them the intellectual stimulation they desire and allow them to explore new interests that they did not have time for when they were working full-time and raising families. Duckworth says, “a growth mindset inclines you to embrace challenges” and develop your abilities.

“If you’re willing to get out of your little box and explore something different, it can open your mind,” said Danowitz. He also notes that there is no pressure: no homework, no tests, no finals to study for. There are no required classes to take to meet college requirements.

Local Adult School and Online Learning Options

OLLI has affiliations with 124 colleges and universities, including Rutgers and Temple. The program at Temple has its own off-campus building, located in center city Philadelphia. Before the pandemic, it offered 99 classes to 1,400 students. It has since shortened its course offerings and moved classes to Zoom.

The OLLI program at Rutgers this Fall will offer 80 classes, all online.  “Remote learning certainly does not replace the face-to-face, in-person programming we so desperately crave,” says Megan Novak, manager of the Rutgers program. But “if there has been any lesson learned over the last few months, it has been the near-constant reminder of the overwhelming resilience of our community.” 

The Princeton Adult School has provided life-long learning opportunities for more than 80-years to anyone over the age of 18. The course catalog lists more than 200 courses — everything from knitting and music appreciation to world languages, technology, and personal finance. Before the pandemic (and hopefully again in the not-too-distant future), the school sponsored trips to the theatre, concerts, and museums. Classes historically took place at Princeton High School, but this Fall, all courses will be offered online, using Zoom.

Classes offered at the Princeton Adult School and OLLI schools are often taught by current and former professors, as well as professionals teaching about their areas of expertise.

Social and Mental Well-Being Benefits of Online Learning

There’s also the social aspect of taking classes. The combination of learning and socializing are two keys to a happy retirement. Experts say social inclusion and connection reduce long-term health costs and the mental toll of loneliness, which is often linked to poor health. Socializing in the age of Coronavirus is certainly more challenging, but even Zoom classrooms offer the opportunity to connect with others.

Studies have repeatedly shown that seniors are most content when they continue to learn and socialize with a broad group of friends and acquaintances. Experts say it’s important to keep challenging yourself and learning new skills, no matter what your age.

OLLI at Rutgers has about 2,000 students enrolled. It had outgrown the 100-year-old church in Highland Park that hosted the program for many years and moved into a modern building on the Cook Campus in New Brunswick. While in-person classes are still months away, even online courses are “a great way for people to connect and cultivate a sense of community,” says Novak, the Rutgers program manager. She says that many students have made great new friendships at school, and there have even been several romances started.

“These courses are academic in nature but don’t have the pressure of tests and grades,” according to Novak. “It’s learning for the love of it.”

The Cost of Online Learning

The cost is usually pretty reasonable. OLLI at Rutgers charges a la carte pricing for its menu of courses: $100 for a 10-week course, and less for shorter sessions. The program at Temple in Philadelphia costs $299 for a full academic year, allowing students to take as many classes as they want over a three-semester year.  Princeton Adult School charges a la carte for its classes, which range from one week to multiple weeks.

Also, many community colleges allow seniors to audit their regular undergraduate classes for free. And some prestigious universities, including Princeton and Penn, let alumni enroll in classes for a fee.

Here’s a financial planning tip: if you have money leftover in a 529 college savings account that you had set up for your kids or grandchildren, you can use it to pay for your education, even if you are not pursuing a degree.   

How EKS Associates Supports Adult Education

As part of its ongoing commitment to client education, EKS advisors Darren Zagarola, Howard Hook, and Eleanore Szymanski are all recurring instructors at the Princeton Adult School. They regularly teach classes on investing, financial planning, retirement planning, charitable planning, and other financial topics. They advise their clients that knowledge is power, and that power will help them achieve financial independence and better handle life’s surprises.

In October, Darren and Howard will teach a 3-week online retirement planning class titled “How Best to Fund Cash Needs in Retirement.” 

Darren is President of the Board of Directors of the Princeton Adult School. He was elected as a Board Member in 2017 and has since been a member of the Development Committee, Finance Committee, and Two Curriculum Committees. Elly also serves on the Board of Directors.

Additional Online Education Options

Other online options are available too. Coursera.org offers classes taught by current professors from Stanford, Duke, University of Michigan, and many other top schools. If you’re taking a course required for college credits, there is tuition, but otherwise, most classes are tuition-free. Other online options include Udemy, Kahn Academy, and some universities have their own YouTube channels.  

As more and more seniors turn to education, we’re learning that it is more than just another retirement activity. It is also health-maintaining and life-sustaining.

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