School Day For Seniors

Even before he retired from his job as a securities broker in 1984, Mac Gibbons knew he wanted to learn more history. "I had traveled all my adult life, and everywhere I went, I was amazed by how little I knew," he says. Gibbons knew he wouldn't have the discipline to read history books on his own, so when he heard about a Yale program allowing alumni to attend classes, he headed back to his alma mater. At 67, Gibbons is now in his fifth fall term of his second Yale career, auditing art-history classes and taking history courses for credit. He has studied Tudor England, the Age of Augustus and Periclean Athens, driving to New Haven once a week from his home in Greenwich. "I take notes like mad. I work my tail off. And I've made more friends than in any period in my life, all of them about 20 years old," he says. This time around, he has earned straight A's.

More and more retirees like Gibbons are going back to college, hitting the books instead of the golf links. In 1989, the Census Bureau's latest count, some 320,000 Americans age 50 and over were enrolled in college courses-including more than 65,000 at the graduate and professional levels. Thousands more are auditing classes, forming retiree study groups, attending university lectures and joining study-travel programs. The back-to-school boom has even turned some college towns into new retirement meccas. "My name for Oberlin is Shangri-La in the fast lane," says Betty Gabrielli, a spokeswoman for the college where a continuing-care retirement community may be built next spring (page 62).

A few older learners are preparing for late-life career changes; some are earning college degrees for the first time. But the vast majority are drawn back to school for the sheer joy of learning. "I've never had so much fun," says Daniel Wynkoop, 86, who finally received his Yale degree last year-65 years after he was expelled for getting married in 1925. He lived on campus and was a bit taken aback by the coed bathrooms, though he says, "At my age, these things become less important. You're more concerned about standing up."

Attending classes can also help fill the void left by a deceased spouse, grown children or retiring from the working world. "If you've been running all your life, you don't just suddenly stop," says Roxana Arsht, 76, a former judge who has been a major benefactor of the University of Delaware. "I live alone with a small dog and he talks only dog language. So much is happening in the world that I'm dying to talk to someone about it," says 89-year-old Madeline Rubin, who began auditing courses at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in her 70s. Once they begin taking classes, many older students find they want to keep going. Midori Arima was a bored California homemaker dabbling in community-college courses when she began to study anthropology. Last June, at 66, she received her Ph.D. from Stanford.

For colleges and universities, older students represent a new growth market when the pool of younger students is shrinking. Many have opened undergraduate classes to older people on a space-available basis. Boston University's Evergreen Program allows any intellectually curious senior to audit courses-for $15 each-regardless of his or her educational background. A record 500 are taking part this fall. Some states require public universities and colleges to waive tuition and fees for elderly residents who want to take courses.

Increasingly, universities are designing whole divisions for adult learners. Stanford's three-year-old Continuing Studies program is theoretically open to anyone with a high-school degree or equivalent. But many of its 700 students are elderly college grads, lured by the rich offering of 60 night courses-from the History of Jazz to Genetics and Disease--taught by Stanford faculty members. They find teaching older learners refreshing. "I don't mean to denigrate Stanford students, but it is a joy to look out at an audience and see them hanging on every word," biological-sciences professor Craig Heller told the Stanford News. This fall, Stanford began offering a five-year Master of Liberal Arts degree to part-time adult students. More than 85 applicants, many of them elderly, competed for the first 20 spaces. "A few people wrote about how they couldn't wait for their grandchildren to see them march down the aisle to get their diploma," says associate dean of Continuing Studies Jeff Wechtal.

Some of the fastest-growing programs are "Learning in Retirement" study groups tailored specifically to older students. Members pay an annual fee and design their own courses, recruiting instructors from among their ranks. The concept was pioneered by the New School for Social Research in New York in 1962. Some 161 LIR programs are now offered nationwide, mostly under university auspices. Harvard's Institute for Learning in Retirement, for example, has 430 members in 49 study groups. The chance to learn with fellow retirees is a key attraction. "They may be interested in World War II, but they want to discuss it with other people who lived through it, not with some 18-year-olds for whom it is ancient history," says University of Delaware associate provost Richard Fischer.

Delaware's "Academy of Lifelong Learning" is one of the largest LIR programs. This year, some 1,400 students 55 and over are participating in 110 courses. The academy has its own plush new $6 million building on the Wilmington cam us; classrooms are wheel-chair accessible and feature enhanced lighting and PA systems. Many of the member/instructors are retired professionals, but they often teach their avocations instead. A retired chemical engineer leads the class on mythologies of the Middle East; a jewelry-store owner teaches a survey of Broadway musicals. There are no grades or exams, yet the courses are demanding and discussions can be electric. "Here we're searching for understanding, not to please some professor," says Roberta Brown, 56.

Some LIR programs are highly selective. UCLA's 375-member PLATO Society (for Perpetual Learning And Teaching Organization) has a waiting list; members must have at least 20 years' work experience and are expected to give dissertation-style presentations in classes of graduate-level quality. The 152 members of the Academy of Senior Professionals at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla., include former governors, congressmen and ambassadors, as well as retired physicians, lawyers and business leaders. They serve as mentors to Eckerd undergraduates and assist in teaching two required undergraduate courses. Mostly, though, the lively retirees relish each other's company as they pursue eclectic interests. A former periodontist leads the study group on opera. "For years he looked into people's mouths--but his heart was in opera," says ASPEC's executive director, Art Peterson. Last year five members--none with construction experience--built an ultralight plane from a kit. Flying the one-seater doesn't require a license-just the ticket for amateur pilots who have had heart attacks and can't qualify to ferry passengers. "It's the first plane in our silver-hair force," says Peterson.

another option for intellectually curious older people is Elderhostel. The Boston-based, nonprofit education network, founded in 1975, offers one-to-four-week study programs at more than 1,600 colleges and other educational institutions in the United States and 43 foreign countries. Elderhostelers live on campus and attend classes provided by the host school. "It's a concentrated dose of what it's like to be a college student"--without homework or grades, says spokeswoman Cady Goldfield. Elderhostel expects an enrollment of some 235,000 this year in courses such as "History and Culture of the Shenandoah Valley" at Mary Baldwin College in Virginia and "Humans and the Sea" at the University of Southern California at Santa Catalina Island. More adventurous learners can go trekking in Nepal while studying the culture of the Sherpas.

Studies have repeatedly shown that the more education people have, the more they want. Even further opportunities for extended learning will soon be needed. The first baby boomers will begin to retire by the end of this decade, and with longer life expectancy, many will have 25 or more years in which to pursue studies. Some may one day attend classes via video and computer links-continuing to learn even from their hospital beds, savoring new fields that keep their minds young.