Steve Powell has discovered one of Wisconsin's best-kept secrets: State residents age 60-plus can audit classes at any of the University of Wisconsin's 26 campuses for free.
Since his retirement, the 64-year-old Madison resident has audited classes in Latin, Chaucer and medieval manuscripts. Now he is considering art history. "The best part is that there are no tests and no papers," Powell said.
At the University of Wisconsin-Madison's campus, enrollment in the program, created in 2000, has more than tripled to about 370 students a semester, said Judith Strand, the assistant dean in the Division of Continuing Studies.
The most popular class is music performance, she said. History, philosophy and religious studies are next in popularity.
Paying students get preference for enrollment, so not all classes are available. Auditors must get the professor's approval and generally may not take classes with labs such as languages or sciences.
That's not always the case, said Beth Weckmueller, executive director of enrollment studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where 367 auditors enrolled last fall.
"Some foreign language departments allow auditors," Weckmueller said. "We don't typically allow graduate classes to be audited."
Class participation is determined by the professor. In general, an auditor is encouraged to be a fly on the wall.
Older students, often more comfortable with speaking up, can dominate a discussion, said Rachel Baum, a lecturer in Jewish studies. While most hold back so the younger students can lead, sometimes they add a valuable perspective.
"Younger students, even Jewish students, often can't relate to the issues of anti-Semitism," Baum said. "Having older students who grew up experiencing anti-Semitism gives my younger students a sense of the history and seriousness of the issue."