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Health & Wellness

Take College Courses for Free, or Close to It

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It may be years since you graduated from school, but you never outgrow your capacity to learn – or the benefits that learning provides.

Research, for example, shows that sustained learning and gaining of new skills enhances memory in older adults.

Fortunately, going back to school as an older adult doesn’t have to involve taking on burdensome student debt.

Whether your interest is art history, political science, nutrition or learning a new language, there are countless free or low-cost ways for seniors to continue their education.

Low-Cost (or No-Cost) College Classes

The Bernard Osher Foundation supports lifelong learning at 122 colleges across the country. Designed for adults 50 and older, these classes don’t offer college credit, but they do provide first-rate instruction in a highly diverse range of subjects, often for less than the price of a dinner out.

The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at the University of South Florida , offers more than 300 classes annually in everything from retirement planning to computer skills. Pay a $20 annual OLLI fee at the University of Michigan and you can take a ten-week “distinguished lecture” series for just $50, participate in more than 150 study groups on a wide variety of topics, or take part in day-long travel trips to Midwestern points of interest.

The OLLI offerings at the University of Pittsburgh include language classes in Italian, Spanish and French; courses in the civil rights movement; poetry and mindfulness; the fundamentals of neuroscience, and hands-on instruction in watercolor painting and pen-and-ink drawing.

Many colleges also permit OLLI members to audit undergraduate classes. That means you won’t receive a grade or class credit, but you’ll also be free from having to complete homework assignments or take exams.

To find programs near you, search “OLLI” and the name of your city.

At many universities and colleges, tuition waivers allow students to take courses for credit or non-credit for free. If you’re a California resident who’s 60 or older, for example, you’re exempt from paying both application and tuition fees at the campuses of California State University. Some conditions typically apply. Often, you won’t be able to register for a course until a few days before it begins.

To discover your local options, contact nearby colleges and universities. Or, do some online sleuthing. Try searching the name of your city or state, “tuition waiver” and “seniors.”

Online Learning

A classroom can provide face-to-face interactions with professors and the opportunity to interact with people of all ages. However, if you prefer to broaden your education from the convenience of your own home and on your own schedule, online options abound.

Some of the top universities in the world provide free online access to a variety of courses. Yale, for example, offers a full set of class lectures, available in high-quality video or audio form, along with a searchable transcript. These are accompanied by readings lists and optional exams. Among the dozens of courses currently available are “Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner,” “Frontiers of Biomedical Engineering” and “The American Revolution.”  

There’s also a vast universe of classes available through MOOC, which stands for “massive open online courses.” A good starting point for exploring these options is the nonprofit edX.org, a platform that was launched by Harvard and MIT in 2012. You can search the programs by subject or university.

Interested in classes given in French? SorbonneX, based in Paris, offers instruction in classic French theater and the works of Oscar Wilde.

Want a well-being boost that strikes the right note? Consider the Boston-based Berklee College of Music’s course in “Music for Wellness,” where professors suggest simple techniques to reduce stress and boost wellness through music.

Always wanted to know more about wine? Australia’s University of Adelaide offers a six-week class called “World of Wine: From Grape to Glass.” Or, consider the wine tasting.

Whatever’s piquing your curiosity these days; chances are excellent there’s a free online course to satisfy that interest. Just search the topic that intrigues you and “MOOC.” From artificial intelligence to zoology, a new world of knowledge awaits.

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