Lifelong Learning Network Grows Nationwide
On a sunny spring afternoon, students meander into a classroom at the University of Oregon's satellite campus in Portland's Old Town district. They set backpacks and purses on a U-shaped conference table and chat while a visiting professor checks her notes and PowerPoint slides.
The room quiets down as English professor Carol Stabile starts talking about women TV writers blacklisted during the 1950s. For the next two hours, students and teacher engage in an animated conversation about McCarthy-era politics, early feminists and self-censorship in Hollywood.
It could be any classroom at any university around the country. But in this one, the students have a good 25 or 30 years on their teacher, and they're not there for a grade or degree, but to keep their minds sharp.
Welcome to the world of lifelong learning.
The University of Oregon is among the growing ranks of colleges that belong to the Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes network, which offers courses to students over 50 at 122 campuses nationwide.
As baby boomers retire, many are heading back to school, and universities are obliging by offering inexpensive, college-level courses on such topics as computer technology, the origins of American jazz and the inner workings of the CIA.
Education experts predict that lifelong learning programs will become even more widespread as the U.S. population ages. This year, nationwide membership in Osher Institute courses is at a record 90,000
"The one thing we all share is a common vision of learning for the joy of learning," says Kali Lightfoot, executive director of the network's national resource center at the University of Southern Maine.
Why spend your retirement going back to school instead of, say, gardening or getting involved in politics? Retired nurse Debbie Cronk, one of the students in Stabile's blacklist lecture, does those things. But she also values the mental stimulation and camaraderie she finds in the classroom.
"I get to hear about things I don't hear about anywhere else," Cronk says, "and I'm with my friends."
The National Network
College programs geared toward seniors and all-ages university extension courses have been around for four decades. But none come close to the size or scope of the Osher Institutes network, which has spread to college campuses from Maine to Southern California since its 2001 inception.
Funded in part by grants from a foundation created by billionaire philanthropist Bernard Osher, the network provides courses to students from ages 50 to nearly 100. Administrators and students call the program "OLLI." Courses are taught by university professors, community volunteers or students who are experts in their fields, and offerings include subjects such as history, literature, mathematics and the arts.
"It's not about finding your next job, or flower arranging or something you'd find at a senior center or Sunday afternoon at the rest home," Lightfoot says.
Most classes do not have homework or grades. They do have a reputation for lively in-class discussions. Professors love teaching them because mature students are such eager learners, program managers report. "It's great fun to teach people who don't have to be there and who can bring their life experience into the classroom," says Ruth Heller, program director for the Osher program at the University of Oregon.
Southern Maine created the national resource center in 2004 to help other universities set up lifelong learning programs, and the Osher Institute Foundation offers $100,000 annual grants to qualifying programs. Most Osher programs also use member fees and subsidies from host universities to cover operating expenses. In the past six years, the number of universities running programs has tripled, Lightfoot says.
Universities structure lifelong learning programs as they choose, so offerings vary like so many ice cream flavors. In May, the University of Illinois program sent 27 students on a 10-day German castles and wine tour led by a local community college instructor. The University of Oregon, which splits its programs between its main campus in Eugene and satellites in Portland and central Oregon, offers courses on Greek history, water conservation, local geography and other subjects. UO also offers book clubs, town hall meetings and trips, including a recent jet-boat excursion on southern Oregon's Rogue River.
Students pay annual dues and serve on committees with program managers and staff to select courses, create calendars and make policy decisions. "Members own it, and that makes a difference in how they view it and the responsibility they feel toward it and what kinds of things the program offers," says Kathleen Ann Holden, director of the University of Illinois' program, which opened in 2007.
Fees vary. Southern Maine's program charges members $25 in annual dues; a typical eight-week course that meets once a week for two hours is $50. At the University of Illinois, annual dues are $125 for one family member, $100 for the second; classes are $25 each, though study groups and lunch-time lectures are free. The school's members also have use of university libraries and online materials not available to the general public.
Until now, many lifelong learning programs have steered clear of hardcore math and science courses, but that's changing. In September 2009, Osher's national resource center received a National Science Foundation grant to create an online education center to help colleges in its network prepare to offer more science and technology courses.
At the University of Oregon's satellite Turnbull Center, 10 students attended Stabile's lecture on blacklisted TV writers. Stabile is director of the school's Center for the Study of Women in Society. It was her first time teaching in the school's lifelong learning program, which began in 2004 and currently has about 675 members split among its three campuses.
Classroom dynamics are different with older students than with undergrads or grad students, especially on historical subjects, Stabile says. Because the participants lived through the times, they have a wider cultural memory to draw upon when joining discussions.
"It also matters that people come because they're interested and not because it's a requirement or part of work they have to do," she says. "The fact that people are genuinely interested in ideas often makes for different conversations."
Stabile looks forward to her next course. "I'm dying to come back and talk about my new research on video games and new media," she says.
It's not unusual for older students to come to classes with their children. At the University of Illinois, for instance, a 97-year-old woman takes classes with her boomer-age daughter, according to Holden, the program's director. The women signed up this spring for a dance series at the school's Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, where instructors held lectures before each performance.
Some students take a few classes a year, while others, like Debbie Cronk, are regulars.
Cronk, 62, started attending classes at University of Oregon after hearing about the program from friends in Portland and Seattle, where courses are offered through the University of Washington. Now she attends lectures and other activities several times a week.
Cronk has a hard time naming a favorite class. Maybe it was the one with the author of a book on a Portland woman who was a World War II double agent. But it could have been the one with the University of Oregon professor who's building a museum in China to preserve the country's folk art.
Al Van Horn, 69, and his wife Toni, 64, divide their time between Santa Rosa, Calif., and Portland, and take lifelong learning courses in both cities.
Al Van Horn calls the classes a luxury. "We especially enjoy the field trips and short courses," he says.
More Information: The Osher Institute
Participating Universities: An interactive map created by the OLLI National Resource Center lists all 122 programs.
The Basics: A video from University of Texas program coordinator Kathy Sangster covers the basics of many OLLI groups.
LLI Review: Academic journal serves as a forum for sharing research, education strategies and curriculum ideas.