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4 Reasons to Go Back to School

Think your college days are behind you? More seniors than ever are headed back to the classroom.

Baby boomers are showing the world that aging doesn't mean slowing down. That's not only true for physical activity but mental agility too. Older adults aren't just looking for book clubs and bridge tables; they're increasingly going back to colleges and universities for everything from career advancement to personal learning.

Whether you're looking for a sense of community, the intellectual stimulation of the classroom, or a new set of skills, there are plenty of opportunities to pursue in retirement. Here's what you need to know to make the right decision and find the best deals.

Know Your Motivation
"Older adults are looking for meaning and purpose," says Steve Thaxton, executive director of the National Resource Center for Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes. "It's not necessarily driven by instrumental needs."

If you're simply looking to be surrounded by other history buffs, for instance, look for universities and colleges with a course you can audit, which is often at a free or discounted rate. If you're looking to gain a new skill for career advancement, make sure you will receive credit for the course you're taking.

Location, Location, Location
It's important to pick a program that you will be able to get to regularly. If you are looking for a specific course and cannot find it nearby, online learning can be a good option, although it often lacks the robust discussion that comes from meeting in a classroom. AARP, for example, has an online academy tailored just for technology education.

Know Your Crowd
Socializing is a key driver for older people going back to school, says Thaxton, but that means different things to different people. Perhaps you are looking for other retirees with similar interests. Or you might be yearning for cross-generational learning that will help you connect with students younger than you.

Some programs are designed specifically to bring older adults into classes with college students, while others are focused on bringing people together who are older than age 50. When looking at programs in your area, make sure to ask about the demographics of the students you'll be with.

Many Options to Pay
If you're still recovering from tuition payments for your children, you'll be pleasantly surprised to find higher education in your later years is often more affordable.

Eighteen states have mandated fee-waiver programs for seniors (usually between the ages of 60 and 65), according to the American Council on Education. Some individual universities offer similar programs. Even without an official fee waiver program, seniors can often audit classes for little or no fee. The Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes use a member system, where each person pays a membership fee that varies by program, and classes are either included within that or offered for an additional fee. Community colleges are also usually much more affordable than universities and private colleges, and many offer courses tailored to the 50-plus crowd.