When I enrolled in college in my late teens, I had no way of knowing that I'd switch career paths decades later. Back then, I thought I had it all figured out: I would graduate with a nursing degree and spend the next 40 years working at a big city hospital. And, while I secretly also dreamed of becoming a writer, nursing seemed like a more stable career path.
Though I loved my years as a nurse, the call to switch gears hit me hard in my 40s. With encouragement from friends and family, I started freelance writing. And though I make a successful living as a writer these days, I've always wanted a degree in my new career.
But with two teens about to hit dorm rooms of their own, it seems selfish to pour money into a second-career degree for me. The crushing cost of college tuition is a struggle for many families, and for older adults, fixed incomes can make the dream of going back to school seem impossible.
However, many colleges and universities have a secret. Well, not a secret, really, more like an underutilized path to a college degree or advanced learning for those 50 and over: Colleges in all 50 states offer the 50-plus set low-cost programs that allow them to take classes either not for credit or for credits toward a degree. Because tuition waiver programs are often not well publicized, many retirees simply don't know that a free or reduced-cost education is an option.
Take the University of Minnesota, for example. More than 500 retirees are enrolled in the university's Senior Citizen Education Program under a state statute that applies to all state-supported colleges and universities across Minnesota. The law allows residents 62 and older to audit classes for free or take them for credit at $10 a credit.
That's right. Ten bucks a credit.
Tom Anderson, a senior student at the University of Minnesota, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune, “People always talk about active older adults and there's a picture of grandma and grandpa out for a walk or on a bike. But you never see them in the classroom. That should be just as important."
U.S. News and World Report states that “approximately 60 percent of accredited degree-granting educational institutions offer tuition waivers for older adults, according to a November 2008 survey by the American Council on Education.” But many don't take advantage of the programs because the rules and requirements can be restrictive. Space availability, permission from instructors, and placement tests can deter retirees from enrolling.
For some, another barrier is technology.
Melissa Fenton, an instructor at the Encore Academy, a program run through a college in Pasco County, Florida, said she loves empowering her older students with technology tips and instructions.
Fenton said college instructors and library staff members who work with this age group do everything they can — like one-on-one tutoring sessions — to get them caught up quickly and proficient enough to complete their coursework. “These nontraditional students are a gift to the classroom. Their life experiences bring a skill set and tenacity that cannot be taught, and is the reason they almost always succeed,” Fenton said.
In May, Joyce Lowenstein was recognized as the oldest member of the Georgia State University graduating class and was given a special shout-out by GSU President Mark Becker. At 93, Lowenstein completed a bachelor of arts degree and attended her commencement with students 70 years her junior.
Though she started college in the 1940s, life had other plans for Lowenstein. Despite enjoying a successful career as an art appraiser, she told GSU News, “I didn't want to be degreeless!” Lowenstein found the GSU-62 program and, with a few adjustments, she hit the halls of college again for the first time in seven decades.
Residents 62 and older can enroll in any college or university within the Georgia University System and take courses for free. Though the tuition waiver has been around for more than three decades, it may be one of Georgia's best-kept educational secrets.
Details surrounding tuition waiver programs — such as how old you have to be to participate — vary by state. For example, Connecticut waives tuition costs at public colleges for those 62 and older. Florida requires all state universities to waive tuition and fees for students 60 and older.
With her new degree in hand, Lowenstein has set her sights on an online certification course for fine art.
"I'm proud of my age,” she told GSU News. “I'm 93, and I made it through seven years to get my degree at Georgia State. I can handle a year online."