Making the Most of the Golden Years: Online College for Senior Citizens

In the last episode of the classic 1970s TV series Sanford and Son, curmudgeonly junkman Fred Sanford mysteriously disappears several nights a week for a month. His concerned family tries to find out where he goes, but Fred refuses to tell. Only when his son Lamont follows him do we learn where Fred has been: He has been attending night school to get his high school diploma. The secrecy was a result of Fred’s lifelong shame over never having finished school. At the end of show, Fred graduates and is announced as the valedictorian, as he and his family share tears of joy and pride at his accomplishment.

Today, many people in the United States have yet to complete high school diplomas or college degrees. Recent studies have shown that anywhere from 25-33% of all high school students drop out. For older generations, the disruptions of the Great Depression, World War II, the Korean and Vietnam wars, and the increasing financial insecurities of American life meant that school, including both high school and college, had to take a back seat to the more primal needs of securing food, shelter, and medical care.

This is a classic example of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in action. Yet despite these clearly necessary reasons for not pursuing their education, many who were forced to drop out of school often feel embarrassed or ashamed, even though they selflessly placed the survival of their families over their own desires and therefore have much to be proud of. But lack of complete or advanced education can also often prevent people from achieving promotions or higher paying jobs, as the recent Tom Hanks movie Larry Crowne demonstrates.

For those older Americans who opt to return to school, the world of the classroom can seem both foreign and intimidating, but online opportunities to earn high school diplomas or college degrees are a welcome development for these potential students. Many senior citizens embrace online learning, for a variety of reasons, including the opportunity to meet new people, learn new skills, and complete their education. Online courses are also often a safe option for older people with mobility issues. Finally, one of the best incentives for American seniors to continue their education is that they can often attend college free or have reduced tuition. According to US News, senior citizens can attend many colleges and universities at reduced rates or, in some cases, for free, as, “Approximately 60 percent of accredited degree-granting educational institutions offer tuition waivers for older adults.” There is even a federal tax credit for senior citizens enrolled in college.

Many state colleges and universities offer extensive free tuition benefits for senior citizens. In Texas, the College for All Texans program provides up to six credit hours to Texas residents, nonresidents and foreign students, who can enroll in any course that still has openings after paying students have enrolled. Similarly, South Carolina has the following policy:

“State-supported colleges and universities, and institutions under the jurisdiction of the State Board for Technical and Comprehensive Education, are authorized to permit legal residents of South Carolina who have attained the age of sixty to attend classes for credit or noncredit purposes on a space available basis without the required payment of tuition, if these persons meet admission and other standards deemed appropriate by the college, university, or institution, and if these persons do not receive compensation as full-time employees.”

All of these factors are clear in the case of Peter Rizzolo, a retired physician who takes online classes with the University of North Carolina. Rizzolo says, “The online courses are pretty neat because you don’t have to leave the house. I’ve gotten literally thousands of dollars worth of credits—120 or so—for free.” He also notes that, “Sometimes students are kind of hesitant to open their mouths and afraid to look foolish in class, but online you get time to think about it before you respond.”

For senior citizens, online courses also eliminate the fear of feeling out of place in a class full of decades-younger students, or shame at not having completed their education. As online students, they do not have to reveal their ages or educational background, or any personal information to their fellow students; often, they are not even required to post a picture, which might make them feel that their age will be evident. The flexibility of online courses is also beneficial for seniors, who can work on class assignments when they have more energy and still participate in other life activities without worrying that they are missing class.

If you are a senior citizen interested in enrolling in online college courses, here are some steps to take to get the process started:

  • Check out a website like SeniorResource.com, which offers a state-by-state list of educational opportunities for seniors, including a list of colleges and universities that offer free or reduced tuition.
  • Conduct an online search for schools that offer senior citizen enrollment opportunities. Read the websites of these schools and note any requirements or contingency factors, such as the privileging of paying full-time students, who must be guaranteed spots and therefore might limit your course options.
  • Contact the registrar and financial aid offices of the school you are interested and ask about tuition discounts or waivers. You can also inquire about requirements for enrollment (for example, if they accept Prior Knowledge Credits) or if there are enrollment limits in the program.
  • Contact your local senior services or senior center and ask if they offer any programs or can refer you to agencies with information on senior education benefits.

The opportunity to continue one’s education means that, like Fred Sanford, many senior citizens can discover that life offers many opportunities no matter age you are. The “golden years” are a great time to fulfill long-cherished dreams.

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