OLDER students audit courses at colleges and universities for many reasons. Some retirees prefer lecture halls to bingo parlors. Travelers might take history or geography classes to learn about future vacation destinations. A philosophy class might help a widow cope with grief.
Then there is the cost — or lack of it. Many institutions across the country, including Ivy League universities and unheralded community colleges, offer older students free or discounted tuition.
For Judith Sherman, who some years ago took a religion class at Princeton, auditing proved therapeutic. Like many retirees in college, Ms. Sherman, now 82, deliberately kept a low profile, rarely raising her hand. But once the class delved into the Holocaust, Ms. Sherman, who had survived the Ravensbrück concentration camp in Germany, felt obligated to speak up.
“This non-Jewish professor was really struggling to connect these privileged students to the Holocaust — and I was sitting there silently,” she recalled. She soon revealed her wartime nightmare to her professor, who invited her to lecture the class. She said her star turn at the lectern “was kind of a freeing experience.”
“I felt as if I was no longer the only guardian of all these memories,” she said.
Politicians freely dole out educational benefits to retirees, notes Prof. Frederic Jacobs at the School of Education, Teaching and Health of American University in Washington. They vote at higher rates than other groups, and mandated tuition waivers cost relatively little. Lawmakers usually stipulate that institutions offer such benefits only on a space-available basis.
Professor Jacobs credits muscular lobbying efforts by AARP for establishing free or low-cost auditing programs. “If you are going to give senior citizens a discount for going to the movies, why not give them a discount to take a class?” he said.
Public institutions often have lifelong learning programs. In Florida, for instance, residents 60 and over can audit classes free at state universities through the Senior Citizen Tuition Fee Waiver Program. New York enacted similar legislation in 1974, and perennial bills in the State Senate and Assembly would expand the law by adding classes taken for credit.
More than 900 people of retirement age, including Joseph and Helen Appel, audit classes at Rutgers, a more than twentyfold increase compared with 10 years ago. This semester, Mr. Appel, 80, and Ms. Appel, 75, are taking “Christians, Jews and Paganism” at the New Brunswick, N.J., campus.
They consider the class a weekly opportunity to socialize with friends. “We meet our two friends at Barnes & Noble,” said Ms. Appel, who had just returned from a lecture on “The Golden Ass” by the Roman writer Apuleius. “We have a snack with them before the class.”
Ms. Appel concedes she enjoys a free education that’s free from homework: “Joe does homework; I don’t.”
When Edward Milbry, 64, first attended Kent State University in Ohio in the 1970s, History of Civilization II was mandatory. Now it is an elective, because he enrolled in the university’s Senior Guest Program.
Mr. Milbry, who plans to travel to all seven continents during his retirement, recently visited Turkey, Egypt and Israel, countries he currently studies in class. He avoids chatting with undergraduate students — “they’re too young” he said — but professors use his presence as a motivational tool.
“A couple of my professors, they approached me and asked who I was and introduced me to the class,” Mr. Milbry said. “ ‘Say, here’s a guy taking the class for the fun of it.’ ”
Older students can gain physiological and psychological health benefits.
“Novelty is something the brain thrives on,” said Prof. Judah L. Ronch, dean of the Erickson School for aging studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “It helps connections between nerve cells form, and that’s the basis of new knowledge and ability. Research now supports the idea that at any age these connections can continue to be made.”
The classroom may be particularly beneficial for widowed students. Many surviving spouses had socialized only with other couples, and “typically the spouse who has been widowed has been shunted aside by the intact couple,” Professor Ronch said. In college, he said, students are unlikely to ask, “Is your husband dead or alive?”
Bernice Galef, 81, says she believes that the life drawing class she takes at Purchase College, State University of New York , is a “lifesaver.” The experience alleviated her depression after her husband died last year. “After grieving, I looked around for something that made me feel that I was still alive,” said Ms. Galef, who appreciates the company of younger classmates.
“We hang out during breaks,” she said. “I really more or less interview them. I am interested in them. I’m interested in why they have the tattoos they have.”
Maintaining harmony between auditors and colleges can require diplomacy and, sometimes, discipline. On its Web site, Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton publishes a primer on auditor etiquette: “The interests of the tuition-paying students must remain primary; interference by enthusiastic auditors is disruptive.” The university also asks that auditors “sit behind the students enrolled for credit.”
Boston University’s Evergreen program for students 58 and over does not go as far as segregated seating, but it does have its rules. “We hand them a conduct code when they register, and they sign their name to it, that they can’t monopolize classes,” said Rebecca Alssid, director of lifelong learning and food and wine programs at the university. “If they have hearing aids, they have to make sure they are adjusted before they come in.”
Evergreen attracts 1,300 to 1,500 students each semester, but Ms. Alssid has to deal with only one or two code violators a year. Most professors report that retirees enrich rather than disrupt the classroom.
“The whole purpose of the program at the beginning was to have an intergenerational program,” Ms. Alssid said. “It’s a way for older students to give their point of view. The teachers love it.”
As a rule, Prof. Yael Zerubavel, founding director of the Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life at Rutgers, poses questions to younger students in her classes before she calls on auditors. “I don’t want the older students to lead the class,” she said. “Sometimes, the younger students might be inhibited.” Yet she said she valued older students as living, breathing textbooks.
“I teach the Jewish immigrant experience,” she said. “It’s wonderful to have people who can talk about it.”
Professor Ronch, the expert on aging and who is also a psychologist, describes the mix of 80-year-olds and 18-year-olds as “magic.” He suggests that a freshman may associate an aging classmate with a nurturing grandparent.
There is limited research on intergenerational classroom relationships. But a paper presented by Naoko Suzuki at the International Conference in Open and Distance Learning in 2011 found that older students at the Open University of Japan “tried to help young people by giving them advice or telling them their own stories.” Younger students surveyed, who had previously struggled in school, welcomed mentoring from older classmates.
Louise Wazbinski, 67, who is auditing Dada and Surrealism at Kent State free, believes that any cultural chasm between older and younger students quickly evaporates. “I know I look older,” she said, “but through my eyes, I feel like one of the kids.”
Asked if she had experienced any surrealistic moments on campus, Ms. Wazbinski thought of only one.
“I get to take these classes, and all I pay for is parking,” she said. “That’s surreal.”