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Education - Lifelong Learning

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Interestingly, while years of education and life have increased more than 150 percent since 1900, the percentage of life that Americans spend in an educational setting has remained at around 17 percent. People now participate in education in more mixed patterns, however, with cyclical or blended variations occurring throughout the life course. As the baby boomers aged during the 1980s, there was a drop in the number of young people entering college, and many community colleges began to open their doors to older adults. The bulk of adults over sixty-five are enrolled in community colleges, primarily studying part-time in public institutions. Computer technology and corporate downsizing also sent many older adults back to school for retraining in the 1980s. Older women significantly outnumbered older men in college and graduate school at the end of the twentieth century.

The increase in leisure time in later life and the explosion of higher education after 1950 fueled the growth in life-long learning. Elderhostel emerged in the 1970s to provide short-term (typically weeklong) educational opportunities for people age fifty-five and older. It began with five campuses and 220 participants in 1975, and in 2000 there were over 270,000 hostellers participating in over 10,000 Elderhostel programs in over seventy countries. In 1988, twenty-four established Institutes for Learning in Retirement (ILRs) collaborated with Elderhostel to form the Elderhostel Institute Network, a series of permanent programs at sponsoring college and university campuses involving noncredit courses and activities staffed by older volunteers. In 2000 there were over 225 such ILRs in the network, providing over 3,000 courses a term to 52,000 network members. In 1992 a service program began with opportunities such as teaching English, archaeological digs, and building affordable housing throughout the world. In conjunction with the Institute Network, the typical college campus offers three or four courses of considerable variety and takes advantage of local attractions with extracurricular activities during the week of Elderhostel. A typical Elderhostel week includes three different classes taught by college professors and various field trips in the evening to local interest sites. For example, "Music in the Big Band Era," "The Many Cultures of Texas," and "Feminist Theology," tours at a local dairy farm, a lake outing, and a visit to a historic house might constitute a week's offerings.

SeniorNet is an organization that began in the 1980s to help older persons take advantage of the information age. It focuses on computer technology instruction and establishing learning communities online. Through small lab sites, often donated by businesses, volunteers teach about computer software and the Internet. According to Mary Russell and Laura Ginsburg's report for the National Center on Adult Literacy, SeniorNet's success comes from characteristics of good online learning communities: its learning environment uses nonformal (and informal) models of learning; it embraces a vision of adult learning and development attuned to social, psychological, and political dimensions; its instructional model is interactive and generative, acknowledging the experience older learners bring to classes; and its social construct supports collective and participatory communication. Diversity and outreach remain special challenges.

Countless local programs are emerging in response to the interest in involving older people in formal education. Grants from the Funds for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education (FIPSE) have helped traditional liberal arts colleges develop programs to stimulate young people by involving retired professionals in regular classes. Foster Grandparents programs and Retired and Senior Volunteer programs place volunteers in elementary schools for tutoring. Many volunteer associations consider education a significant part of their mission. AARP sponsors driver education courses that assist older persons with insurance deductions and improve road safety.

Public policy has supported education for older citizens through a variety of statutes enacted since passage of the Older Americans Act of 1965. In addition to statutes addressing adult, technical, vocational, and bilingual education, various laws have supported older veterans, displaced homemakers, and women. These enactments stress the importance of education for productive life and service.

The benefits of education are many. Older adults know this and are pioneers in the new era of lifelong learning. The education gaps between young and old are becoming a thing of the past, and a traditional age for learning is fading with them.



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Elderhostel, Incorporated. www.elderhostel.org.

National Center for Health Statistics. "Life Expectancy." Available at www.cdc.gov/

RUSSELL, M., and GINSBURG, L. "Learning Online: Extending the Meaning of Community: A Review of Three Programs from the Southeastern United States." National Council on Adult Literacy (NCAL) Technical Report TR99–01. Graduate School of Education, University of Pennsylvania for the Southeast, and Islands Regional Technology in Education Consortium, 1999. Available at http://literacyonline.org/products/

SeniorNet Organization. www.seniornet.org

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