'Lifelong learning' programs find a niche in higher ed

Programs offer social interaction and intellectual stimulation

The demand for "lifelong learning" programs—classes geared toward retirees—is growing, with some programs having waiting lists that are hundreds of names long, Harriet Edleson reports for the New York Times.

While school districts, libraries, and other local institutions have long offered adult education programs, lifelong learning programs tend to be offered through colleges and universities, and their goals are different. They typically don't emphasize skills—like learning a new language—but instead "position themselves as communities where the participants not only take on challenging subjects but also seek to engage more deeply with their fellow students," Edleson explains.

How they work

One of the most popular programs of the type, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes runs 119 institutes nationwide—most in partnership with a college or university—with 150,000 participants per year. The Bernard Osher Foundation, founded in 1977, offers grants to support the programs.

The Osher institute at Johns Hopkins University has 1,200 members—with 500 more on the waiting list. Hopkins has three Osher campuses in Maryland, as well as satellite locations at two area retirement communities. A full membership costs about $500 annually while an associate membership, which limits the number of classes members can attend, costs $125.

"I'm learning a lot of things I didn't know," says Bill Lewis, 69, who attends the Hopkins program with his wife Paula Ramsey Lewis, 67. They cite a politics class taught by journalist Eleanor Clift as among their favorites.

How to stay active and engaged after retiring from higher education

But Mary Kay Shartle Galotto, the director of the local program, says lifelong learning's goals are both social and academic. "If your mind's active and you have opportunity for social networking, it gives you a life," she explains. And Edleson notes that research suggests staying cognitively active is associated with lower risk of Alzheimer's disease.

Strong demand

According to David Blazevich, senior program director at the Bernard Osher Foundation in San Francisco, "all locations are looking to expand services to keep up with the demand."

There's also a waiting list at Westchester Community College's Collegium for Lifelong Learning, which started in 2003 and is similar in structure to the Osher institutes. The Collegium was the idea of Edith Litt, now 87, who was a member of the school's foundation board. Today, she attends classes regularly and says members take their studies seriously.

"They're not allowed to talk about grandchildren or doctor's visits," she says (Edleson, New York Times, 1/1).

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