Lifelong learning programs are not only a rich source of activities for seniors; they're an enriching business opportunity for a growing roster of colleges and universities, retirement communities, travel companies, and cultural institutions. U.S. News searched for the nation's best places for lifelong learning, using the 2,000-city database of our partner, Onboard Informatics, and interviews with education and other learning experts. (You can find your Best Place to Live using our new search tool.) We looked for cities with lots of people with undergraduate and graduate degrees; heavy employment at higher education institutions; concentrations of schools, libraries, and museums; and plenty of literary and cultural activities nearby. Areas of particular focus are those containing all three branches of higher education: universities, colleges, and community colleges. The last of these has long reached out to nontraditional learners. Most places in the United States have plenty of lifelong learning choices. Our top 10 have more. They tend to be smaller places adjacent to large urban areas, and they often benefit from that proximity. But they also have their own homegrown programs.
Rochester, Mich., for example, has the Older Persons Commission, which is so central to the community that it has its own millage rate for city taxes. Oakland University enrolls 18,000 students and thousands more who take noncredit courses. Its lifelong learning programs are currently offered separately by individual academic departments but have grown so much that they're now being centrally coordinated under Associate Provost Michelle Piskulich. "We work very actively to help develop programs in the community and make sure they're connected to the university," she says.
Lesell College in Newton, Mass., near Watertown and Boston, has pursued senior learning opportunities so ardently that it opened its own retirement community in 2000. Lesell Village has 220 residents, and households must agree to major classroom, outside learning, and community participation time—450 hours a year—to be eligible to live in the village. Its 198 apartments range in price from about $250,000 to $900,000, with monthly maintenance fees running about $3,000 to $7,500 (that includes all courses).
Other universities and colleges are following Lesell's lead, says Robert H. McNulty, president and CEO of Partners for Livable Communities in Washington. "It's the hot button," he says. "Almost every college town, from Bowdoin in Maine to Minnesota State University in Mankato to Clemson to Michigan State, is trying to develop a symbiotic relationship" with older learners. Particularly in smaller cities, he says, strong relationships between schools and seniors are being used as a marketing magnet to lure retirees to relocate there. McNulty says museums, art centers, and other cultural institutions also define communities that promote lifelong learning.
Hundreds of schools throughout the country have set up lifelong learning institutes (Elderhostel maintains an online list). Within this group are more than 120 Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes, supported by philanthropist Bernard Osher. "Every Osher Institute is different," says Kali Lightfoot, who directs the national resource center for all Osher institutes. Most of the institutes have classes that meet once or twice a week and last four to eight weeks, she says. Lightfoot, who also works with the Osher program at the University of Southern Maine in Portland, says the courses may be taught by university faculty members, but they're more often taught by people in the community who are knowledgeable and passionate about a topic.
In La Grange Park , Ill., you'll find plenty of retirees and residents with college degrees, says Dale Lilburn, chief executive of Plymouth Place Senior Living, a 300-resident continuing care retirement community in La Grange. "Our residents volunteer at the hospitals, the zoo, the arboretum, and we have people who get on the train every day to serve as docents at the downtown museums" in Chicago, he says. "The College of DuPage is here, and it's a very large community college. It can be a little far for our residents to travel, so the college holds classes here at Plymouth Place, and we open those up to the general community."
Camden County College and Rutgers University are near Haddenfield, N.J. The town's senior center, while small, offers extensive education, art, and fitness and nutrition classes. The highly regarded Haddenfield Memorial High School offers adult classes, and people in town can walk to those. "In fact," says Dory Mann, Haddenfield's director of senior programs, "everything in Haddenfield is really within walking distance." Here's the full list of Best Places for Lifelong Learning: