Illustration by Paul Spella (from left: Getty Images; Shutterstock; One Day University; Getty Images
Stephen Schragis dreamed up the idea for One Day University in 2006 when he dropped his daughter off for her freshman year in college. “I kept thinking, I want to go to college, not pay for college,” he says now.
Fourteen years later, Schragis, 63, is dean of what feels like the School of the Future. One Day University brings together nearly 200 of the most popular professors from the nation's top schools to do what they do best: wow and inspire with their insights and knowledge — and without a grade or homework assignment to worry about.
"We really think of ourselves as an entertainment company,” says Schragis, who previously oversaw continuing education for the Learning Annex, an adult education company founded in 1980 and based in New York. Today he runs One Day University with business partner and Managing Director Kevin Brennan.
"People take One Day University classes for the same reasons they go to a Broadway show or a museum. They go to be stimulated, to expand their horizons, to have fun. I tell professors, ‘Your job is not to make sure everyone passes the test, because there is no test. Your job is to get a standing ovation at the end.'”
A quick pivot to online
Before the pandemic, One Day U's seminars happened in person in 61 cities around the U.S. Starting in March, Schragis and his team worked day and night to transition to online learning. Course offerings now edge toward topics that give context to issues in the news, including what President Franklin Roosevelt would do in 2020, the future of air travel and lessons from the flu epidemic in 1918. In less than three weeks, more than 5,000 people signed on as members (there are now nearly three times that many) as the company launched a website on a $7.95 monthly subscription model, like Netflix or Spotify, similar to other “edutainment” companies like MasterClass, Skillshare and Coursera. Lectures can be livestreamed or viewed later on demand, and members have access to a library of hundreds of talks about history, psychology, the arts, political science and more.
This month, One Day University is offering AARP members the opportunity to watch five dynamic videos — without the monthly fee. See the schedule to save the dates.
Health benefits of lifelong learning
"Twenty-five years ago, when you asked people 55 years and older what they wanted in their leisure time as they aged, the number one or two answer was proximity to a golf course,” Schragis says. “Now, accessibility to higher education is number one or two. That doesn't mean a degree to get a better job or more money. It means high-quality learning for the sake of learning. At any age, you enrich your life with new ideas and by following your intellectual curiosity.”
Feeding the brain this way has benefits beyond improving small talk at your next family Zoom get-together. Multiple studies show that lifelong learning is as critical as exercise and diet in reducing the risk of mental decline and dementia. A 2019 systematic review of nearly 5,000 citations of continuing education studies found “a positive association between participation in cognitively stimulating leisure activities and reduced incidence of dementia and improved cognitive test performance.” The prescription: Take a walk with a seminar on ancient Rome or quantum physics in your ears.
Schragis concedes that he is still learning himself. After years of running an education company, he admits he had let his own curiosity “go dormant for a while” as he focused on the business side of things. “At the hundreds of live events I was always worried about the audience, the sound quality, the bathroom lines, parking, auditorium temperature and things like would we have enough coffee,” he says. Going online has shifted his focus and left him feeling revived. “I don't have to do that now ... and I don't miss it,” he says. “Now I have more time to actually listen and learn from so many remarkable professors."