Photo by Maddie MacGarvey
Pete Bidinger hasn't found a history course he doesn't like.
Once a week, he and a dozen typical college-age students meet with their professor. Every quarter, he discovers something new.
"Just this past summer, I couldn't name the countries that form Central Asia," Bidinger said. "Now I know the traditions of those countries from Columbus' time."
Bidinger, who retired in 2003 after a career in network development and management, has attended classes on a variety of topics, including German language and computer science, and has studied the history and religions of several countries.
Under Ohio law, residents 60 and older can audit classes for free at 13 public universities and 23 community colleges, space permitting, with the professor's approval. Courses may be audited at more than four dozen branch campuses as well.
Registration methods and even the name of the program may vary from one college to another. Most schools have information on their websites and offer help by phone and in person.
Once enrolled, students in the lifelong learning program can take full advantage of the classroom experience, completing as much or as little of the course assignments as they choose. Students who audit courses are usually not required to buy books, but they may be required to pay registration, parking and other fees.
They don't earn credits toward a degree, but participants and professors say it's rewarding for everyone.
Ohio State associate professor Alan Beyerchen had his first experience with Program 60 students in a course he taught about the Holocaust. The students shared their experiences with younger classmates, adding depth and context to class discussions.
That was in 1990, and Beyerchen has welcomed Program 60 students to his history classes ever since.
"They add so much to the class," Beyerchen said. "They can sometimes validate what I say. I can draw on their life experiences during my lectures. And the younger students are awed. They say, 'Here's someone who lived through that period in history.' "
At the University of Cincinnati (UC), prospective students enroll in the Senior Audit Program through the Transfer and Lifelong Learning Center. Admissions officer Eric Weaver recommends that students interested in auditing a course first complete a form available on the Senior Audit Program website and fax, mail or take it to his office. They should then select several courses to audit in case their first choices are filled. Registration is online.
At the University of Toledo, Program 60 students, who must first be admitted to the university, can register for almost any undergraduate class. They seem to favor classes in music, art, history, ceramics and business but can enroll in almost any class that interests them, said Dennis Lettman, dean of the College of Adult and Lifelong Learning.
Registration for spring classes opens Jan. 6 in Rocket Hall, room 1550. There are help sessions hourly from 9 to 11 a.m. and 1 to 4 p.m. in that room. Help is also available by phone and on the department Web page.
Ohio State was the first institution in Ohio to offer tuition-free courses to older adults and has been doing so since 1974. According to program coordinator Diane W. Dortmund, its Program 60 is the gateway to classes from 180 departments, including honors and graduate-level courses.
Program 60 participants enjoy being around the young students, and professors often make a special effort to welcome older students who want to audit classes, she said.
Dortmund offers an information and training session each quarter for prospective students who are unfamiliar with the Office of Continuing Education's online registration process. The next session is Dec. 13 from 10 to 11:30 a.m. Dortmund said she also responds to questions by phone, email or in person.
"I have had students say, 'My grandkids went to college and my kids, but I had to work two jobs,' " she said. They enjoy the chance to take college classes without the burden of tuition or grades.
Dortmund advises prospective students to pursue whatever is academically interesting to them.
"Do you want to write your memoirs? Take courses in writing," she said. "Do you love to travel? Take a foreign language course, then practice speaking while you travel."
At Cincinnati State Technical and Community College, people 60-plus can apply as non-degree-seeking students, said registrar Ryan Hunt, who assists with enrollment.
"Start the registration process as early as possible," he advised. Starting early allows Hunt to help a lifelong-learning student find a course that is a good fit.
Bidinger advised touring the college after enrolling to get acclimated. It took him a term or two to learn his way around the Ohio State campus, but even that was an adventure.
During his time as a lifelong learning student, he has discovered that knowing course numbers helps with planning and that taking note of good professors yields ever more interesting experiences. The students even have their own club, the Program 60 Association, which offers day trips, lectures and peer interaction.
You may also like: Wisconsin's program for 60-plus learners.
Gayle Brown is a writer living in Alexandria, Ky.