Forget Tuition: How Retirees Can Attend College for Free

A look at universities that offer free or low-cost classes.

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[See Retirement Often Happens Unexpectedly.]

Living on campus. University-based retirement communities are sometimes located on campus or near campus at schools including Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., Oberlin College in Ohio, the University of Florida in Gainesville, and the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Although a spot in an assisted living facility on campus can be quite expensive, many colleges allow residents to attended classes for free and sometimes provide access to college libraries and set aside tickets to sporting events or concerts. Retired Verizon engineer Charlie Klemick, 84, and his wife Ruth, 82, live in an on-campus retirement community at Pennsylvania State University and are both taking an undergraduate course, The Art of Cinema. “We get a great benefit out of associating with the young people, and they allow us to stand up and address the class and give our opinions,” says Klemick. But there's one caveat: “Our class runs at night from 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 and that’s a little long for old people to sit on hard chairs.” Penn State lecturer Jonathan Cavallero, who teaches Klemick’s cinema class, says he enjoys teaching older students because they add to the discussion. “At one point, we were talking about McCarthyism and one of the guys in my class that worked during the Great Depression stood up and talked about how McCarthyism affected him in the 50's and when he was done talking, the students applauded him," says Cavallero. “At times, they become the professors."

Classes for seniors. Some colleges offer continuing education classes specifically for adults age 50 and older. These courses typically last a few weeks instead of an entire semester. In his traditional undergraduate classes and adult classes, Andrew Carle, an assistant professor at George Mason University, presents similar information but leaves more time for questions and discussion with the older students. “When I talk to a group of retirees, hands will be going up all over the place concurrent with the presentation. You don’t see that quite as much from undergraduates or even graduate students,” he says. There is also a network of Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes at approximately 120 colleges and universities in the U.S., including California Polytechnic State University, Texas Tech University, and the University of South Florida. These courses for older adults don’t require papers or exams, and the fees vary considerably by program. At George Mason, for example, the fees range from $125 to $350 annually for an unlimited number of courses over four semesters.

Online courses. Many well-known universities such as MIT, Stanford, and Yale allow anyone to audit select courses online free of charge. Other colleges wave online course fees just for state residents above a certain age. For example, seniors age 65 and older in North Carolina can take public university courses in person, online, or through correspondence for credit without paying tuition. “The online courses are pretty neat because you don’t have to leave the house,” says Peter Rizzolo, 80, a retired doctor who has taken classes both online and in person at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University on topics including American history, art, and Italian. “I’ve gotten literally thousands of dollar worth of credits—120 or so—for free," he says. "All I’ve paid for is my books and lab fees for courses like astronomy.” Shy students may be more likely to participate in online courses, Rizzolo adds. “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.”

[See 6 Ways to Make Your Retirement Accounts Last Longer.]

Hidden Costs. Even if you qualify for free tuition and watch out for fees, you'll still have to pay for things like books and parking (which is notoriously difficult to find and is a considerable expense on many college campuses.) Many traditional courses also have online components, so you may need a computer and Internet access. Says Margaret Rubega, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut, “I’m having the students use Twitter to make posts about what they are seeing in the bird life outside the course." She currently has one older student auditing her ornithology (bird science) class. “When I asked the students how many of them know what Twitter is, the one person in the course who raised their hand was the older person auditing the class.”