Rediscovering the Joy of Learning
By Kenneth E. Young

from the December '96 AAHE Bulletin


Retirement-age students are not the "traditional" demographic for higher education, but through special programs like Institutes for Learning in Retirement and Elderhostel, they can contribute a lot in the classroom and on campus.

Kenneth E. Young was executive director of the Institute for Learning in Retirement of American University during 1984-1989, capping a career of forty-two years in higher education. He can be reached at 4200 Cathedral Avenue NW, Apt. 512, Washington, DC 20016.


I am a 74-year-old student at American University. One day as I was walking across campus I encountered the university's president, an acquaintance, who called out, "I'm happy to see so many gray-haired students!" To which I answered, "You should be. We're the ones here for the sheer joy of learning."

This exchange, while joking, underscores three truths:

  1. Most colleges and universities are experiencing a steady growth in the presence of students over the age of 50.
  2. These older students bring to campus attitudes, behaviors, and expectations that in some ways are significantly different from those of most "traditional" students.
  3. Such differences offer exciting new opportunities for reinvigorating all of higher education.

Today in America, we are participants in the greatest late-life demographic revolution in human history. Never before has such a large and growing proportion of the population survived into old age. Since 1900, the percentage of Americans 65 and older has more than tripled (from 4.1 percent in 1900, to 12.7 percent in 1992), and the number has increased more than ten times (from 3.1 million to 32.3 million). And the older population is projected to grow still larger (35.3 million in 2000, 40.1 million in 2010, 53.3 million in 2020, and an astounding 70.2 million in 2030).

The Graying of the Campus

Colleges and universities already are feeling the effects of these demographic changes. In the twenty-eight years from 1970 to current projections for 1998, the number of students 35 and older on college and university campuses has increased by more than 400 percent. By 1987, 3.1 percent of undergraduate students and 4.1 percent of graduate students were 50 or older. These figures do not include the significant growth in continuing education registrations.

Many colleges and universities serve older students, and they do so in many different ways. Various institutions —

  • offer free or discounted tuition to older adults taking regular or continuing education courses on a space-available basis;
  • provide services such as re-entry assistance, counseling, and even financial aid for older persons earning a degree or preparing for career change;
  • offer specially designed continuing education courses to assist persons in dealing with problems of retirement, growing older, bereavement, and so on;
  • support gerontology centers that conduct research and offer related educational activities;
  • sponsor programs, such as those listed by Elderhostel, designed to attract older persons from other parts of the country for short-term, on-campus educational experiences; and
  • are planning to deliver educational offerings, in person or remotely, to older persons in nursing homes, retirement communities, and elsewhere.

Yet, many college and university officials are unaware of the existence of these activities, and their potential importance. Among such programs, two of particular note are Elderhostels and Institutes for Learning in Retirement.

Elderhostel programs bring students, mostly age 60 and over, to a campus from all parts of the country to spend a week or longer taking short, intensive courses, usually taught by regular faculty. Elderhostel programs are hosted by educational institutions and organizations in all fifty states and the District of Columbia, in Canada, and more than fifty countries overseas. In 1994, almost 1,800 participating institutions served almost 300,000 Elderhostelers.

Institutes for Learning in Retirement (ILRs), among them the program that brought me to American University, are membership organizations of local retirement-age learners who come together to plan, participate in, and often conduct educational courses and events for themselves and their community. ILRs are sponsored by a wide variety of educational institutions across North America. More than 150 ILRs have joined in an association, the Elderhostel Institute Network, which helps new ILRs to form and provides a variety of enrichment services to well-established ILRs.

The ILR Model — A Creative Response

The first ILR was established as the Institute for Retired Professionals at the New School for Social Research (now the New School) in New York City in 1962. The impetus for the program came from a group of retired school teachers who were dissatisfied with the programs their teacher's union sponsored for retired members. They wanted a learning arrangement that better reflected the active intellectual challenge they were seeking.

From the very beginning the concept of retired (or near-retirement) persons going to college to plan, organize, and run their own learning programs was enormously appealing. In 1976, Hyman Hersch, the Institute's founding director, convened a national conference that resulted in the beginning of widespread expansion of the ILR concept. Among the early pioneers in adapting the New School model were the University of California-Berkeley Extension, University of California-San Diego Extension, CUNY's Brooklyn College, Hofstra, Harvard, Delaware, Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Miami (FL), Duke, Nova Southeastern, New Hampshire, American, and the University of California-Los Angeles.

There are now about 200 ILRs in the United States and Canada. More than 100 of those were started with the specific help and support of the Elderhostel Institute Network. The diversity among institutional sponsors mirrors higher education itself: large urban-based research universities such as Northwestern; suburban institutions such as Edmonds Community College, north of Seattle; small, rural campuses such as Georgia's Young Harris College; and historically black institutions such as Missouri's Lincoln University.

An interesting example of a multifaceted program involving older adults is the North Carolina Center for Creative Retirement at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, which includes a College for Seniors (its ILR), Leadership Asheville Seniors (linking the expertise of local older adults with community needs), the Senior Academy for Intergenerational Learning (matches retired professionals with UNCA undergraduates and local public school children), a Senior Wellness Program (promoting physical fitness and good nutrition), a Research Institute (engages in regional and national research on issues vital to older adults), Seniors in Schools (provides senior volunteers to local public schools), Retirement Planning Program (contracting with local companies to provide financial and preretirement planning to employees), and Outreach Programs (engaging the educational interests of older adults throughout the region).

The Generation Gap

Most active older learners have always been intellectually engaged persons and want to continue to be so in retirement. They usually are college graduates, and many have advanced degrees. They have pleasant memories of their years in college and may be seeking to recapture those experiences. Some have special learning interests, and others desire to sample new areas of study. But what makes these students so special is their strong commitment to learning – to use their minds, to continue to grow intellectually, to better understand the world in which they live. It is sad but true that the same cannot be said about all other students.

Older students bring to the classroom rich backgrounds, having lived through the Great Depression, World War II, the Korean conflict, and the disruption of the 1960s, as well as many personal accomplishments and tragedies. They are eager to share their experiences and often will challenge statements ("That wasn't the way I saw it"). They tend to be curious, much like researchers, asking questions (How come? So what?). Such students are self-directed learners, motivated by intrinsic factors (self-esteem, creative expression) rather than extrinsic goals (grades, tests, degrees). They are quite independent and dislike lots of rules and regulations. They prefer give-and-take discussions to lectures.

Faculty members who have had the experience of leading an ILR study group or serving as a guest lecturer find these older students to be a refreshing change. They often say such things as, "How can I go back to teaching those 19-year-olds? They're either not paying attention or slavishly writing down everything I say so they can play it right back to me verbatim without a fresh or original thought or insight." Teaching older adults, in fact, requires that the teacher function more like an orchestra conductor, bringing up the volume in one section while keeping another section very much in the background, and never allowing any section to dominate for too long.

A few institutions are beginning to recognize these older students as a special resource to the campus and the community. For instance, Eckerd College is delighted to have the members of its Academy of Senior Professionals take on some of the responsibility for career counseling there. Member-volunteers serve as resources and mentors in fields such as medicine, law, and engineering. Often the members and the undergraduates they counsel form genuine friendships, which increase the power and effectiveness of the counseling relationship. Eckerd also arranges for some Academy members to associate themselves with individual faculty, attending undergraduate classes as special resource persons, sharing their life experiences, and offering a point of view different from the professor's. This interaction creates an exciting learning environment, of great benefit to the participating undergraduates.

Elsewhere, the members of Prime Time at California State University-Chico help the university with the cultural education of foreign students on campus. And members of Nova Southeastern University's Institute for Retired Professionals participate in a wide range of intergenerational activities with students in that university's on-campus high school and special school for disabled students.

Such programs change the texture of the educational experience for both generations of students. Each benefits from the intellectual and personal interaction with the other.

Other institutions sponsor ILRs whose members become active in community service. To honor the founder of the Academy of Lifelong Learning at the University of South Carolina-Aiken, members of the Academy sponsor an annual award and memorial lecture, which is open to the community. Members of the Academy for Senior Professionals at Hope College (MI) volunteer as historic tour guides during the city's annual week-long Tulip Time festival. A special team drawn from the membership of the Learning in Retirement Association of the University of Massachusetts Lowell tutor in the local public school.

Whether or not an ILR's members are involved in a formal program of community service, most colleges and universities have found that these respected older citizens will become effective goodwill ambassadors for the institution in the local community.

A New Kind of Learning Community?

Currently, Institutes for Learning in Retirement, Elderhostel's regular residential education programs, and a variety of continuing education programs designed specifically for older adults operate at higher education's margins. They are treated as "worthwhile" activities that colleges and universities usually rationalize for their "community service" and "public relations" value, while the real core of higher education remains its more traditional undergraduate and graduate degree-granting programs.

But the retirement-age student represents a significant resource that, if given the chance, could bring to the academic community the kind of rich variety of life experience it currently lacks in its dedication to the pursuit of credentials for the "real world." And these mature students could become valuable role models for "traditional" students by sharing their commitment to education and their motivation to learn just for the joy and intellectual stimulation of the experience.

There are literally millions of older adults in this country who could be attracted to our campuses if we would only take them seriously enough. The interest in and commitment to education is there. They are, after all, the generations who literally built our institutions of higher education with their tuitions, their contributions, and their taxes during the heady post-World War II years. Now it's time to completely open up our campuses to these older Americans who have achieved so much and contributed so significantly to the life and spirit of this country.

To learn more

For a discussion of the defining characteristics of the ILR movement, see Kenneth E. Young, "The Graying of the College Campus and What It Means for Higher Education," The Center Update 81 (Spring/Summer 1994): 1-2 (a publication of the Center for Adult Learning and Educational Credentials, American Council on Education).

Those interested in learning more about ILRs and similar programs should read Students of the Third Age: University/College Programs for Retired Adults, Richard B. Fisher, Mark L. Blazey, and Henry Lipman, eds. (New York: ACE/Macmillan, 1992).



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