Good Life

Curiosity, friendship drive learning among retirees

Tom Walsh, center, works on a data communication device with James Bienz, left, and Cory Gehr during class. Walsh, 81, is taking a robotics class at Penn State through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.
Tom Walsh, center, works on a data communication device with James Bienz, left, and Cory Gehr during class. Walsh, 81, is taking a robotics class at Penn State through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

Tom Walsh is 81 years old and audits a college class twice a week at Penn State. He keeps a list of course prospects based on recommendations from his younger classmates.

And he’s been doing that for eight years.

“I want to keep my mind alert,” Walsh said. “I want to expand it, have a global understanding and learn with these young people.”

Walsh, a New Jersey marketing professional who retired in State College 10 years ago, is one of many people who continue their education for a variety of reasons, including pure academic curiosity, hobbies and skills, and social interaction.

The Internet also opens more opportunities for adult education, even if seniors can’t make it to campus as Walsh does.

“State College is the most rich community for educational opportunities because of Penn State,” said Sarah Benton, executive director of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the university.

OLLI offers a non-degree educational format for adult learning.

The institute has about 300 courses, including hiking, book clubs, a stock market investment forum, quantum physics, cooking and travel.

It’s an excellent format for retirees because there are no tests and no stress associated with degree standards, and nearly anyone can teach courses, too, Benton said.

Plus, the cost is affordable — between $10 and $30 a course, depending on its length.

“It’s learning for the pure joy of learning,” she said.

Many participants are taking up new hobbies and exploring academic areas that always interested them, yet they never pursued, she said.

“Oftentimes through our lifespan, we put things off, whether for time or finances,” Benton said. “This gives (adult students) a chance to try it.”

OLLI has 1,238 members taking courses. Students often socialize around shared interests at OLLI, she said. Socialization can be difficult for many people, particularly older individuals who may have lost a spouse and are having difficulty relating to friends, Benton said. Social interaction around a shared hobby or intellectual interest can help ease the transition.

“It’s a natural way to meet people,” she said.

Meeting people is one reason Walsh takes courses at the university, he said.

He and his wife started taking courses together eight years ago. Walsh continued after her death last year. The people he meets also fuel his intellectual curiosity, offering up their favorite classes.

Walsh is taking a course in robotics. In fall 2013, he studied contagious diseases.

He said he plans to study 3-D printing — the growing use of machines that “print” layers of plastic. Three-dimensional printing has brought small-scale manufacturing to the desktop and is used to aid other professions, such as medical sciences.

“I like leading-edge topics,” Walsh said.

Education via the Internet cuts along that edge, too.

“You don’t have to quit your job or come to campus to complete a degree,” said Karen Pollack, director of academic affairs and undergraduate programs for Penn State’s World Campus, an online study program.

World Campus has 90 degree programs aimed at adult learners, typically people older than 35, Pollack said. About 14,000 people are enrolled in the programs. Penn State aims to grow World Campus enrollment to 45,000 — nearly as much as the University Park campus — within 10 years, she said.

World Campus students between 50 and 59 years old account for 5.7 percent of total enrollment, according to the school’s data.

There are 47 students older than 60, or half a percent of total enrollment.

Older students are an important driver to collegiate enrollment. The 3.9 million Americans older than 35 attending degree-granting institutions in 2010 was a 34 percent gain from a decade ago, according to the National Center for Education Statistics’ 2011 digest. That’s the same percent gain as the 18- to 24-year-old bracket.

The center projects 35-and-older enrollment to grow 18 percent more by 2020.

World Campus also operates Penn State’s massive open online courses, or MOOCs, a style of online education to broaden community reach. MOOCs allow anyone to sign up for courses with no obligation or penalty for withdrawing from them.

“It’s low stakes, no stakes,” Pollack said.

Penn State offered five MOOCs in the past year, attracting 300,000 applications, she said.

“That high level of interest indicates to us that we are on to something here,” Pollack said, “and we have participants who are interested in learning more.”

Only a fraction who apply ever complete the MOOCs, she said. On face value, that might look like failure, but MOOCs offer flexibility that appeals to older students.

Some MOOC students take other online courses, too, she said.

“The whole enterprise of online learning is geared to lifelong learning,” Pollack said.

Walsh said his family is happy he’s staying active.

And he hopes that serves as an example for how they spend the rest of their lives.

“I want to impress upon my children and grandchildren,” Walsh said, “that education is important throughout your life.”