Online education has dramatically changed the way older adults and young people alike pursue an education. And with National Higher Education Day approaching on June 6th, there’s never been a better time to think about going back to school.
As an older adult, you now have the opportunity to go back to school on your own terms and at your own pace, by taking classes online — often at a significantly reduced cost, or even free. Whether you’d like to advance professionally, pursue a second career or just keep your mind sharp, there are many online education programs available to you.
Online learning has become especially important during the coronavirus pandemic, enabling students to keep up with their studies, and offering people of all ages the opportunity to pursue an education.
Here’s everything you need to know about taking college classes online so you can achieve your goals.
Why pursue an online education?
Online education — also known as distance education — was originally conceived as an alternative to in-person classes, but online courses have become increasingly important as more and more students learn from home. Now, many students complete all their higher education requirements online, earning certificates and degrees in the process.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), there were 6,651,536 students enrolled in distance education courses at degree-granting postsecondary institutions in 2017, the most recent year for which data has been collected. That number is sure to increase given the various stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines due to COVID-19.
There are numerous benefits to pursuing an online education for older adults:
Discounted or waived tuition prices
Online learning is often much more affordable than in-person classes, and colleges want engaged students to enroll in their online classes regardless of their age. Senior citizens may be eligible for discounts and even tuition waivers at some institutions. The waivers won’t cover the cost of textbooks and other learning materials, but they still allow you to enroll in classes free of charge where space is available.
Keep your mind and memory healthy
Pursuing higher education is also a great way to keep your mind sharp, which is especially important as you age. According to Harvard Medical School, “A higher level of education is associated with better mental functioning in older age. Experts think that advanced education may help keep memory strong by getting a person into the habit of being mentally active.”
According to Tara Goodfellow, former CFO at The Art Institute of Charlotte and Managing Director of Athena Consultants, Inc., “Some seniors are lifetime learners and it keeps the brain agile and engaged. It’s good to continue to learn, explore and be challenged.”
The potential to learn at your own pace
Leaning online provides you the freedom and flexibility to learn at your own pace. Even if you’re currently working, many online courses provide you with 24/7 access, so you can complete coursework on your own time.
When searching for online courses, pay attention to the course descriptions. Look for the terms “synchronous” and “asynchronous,” in particular. Synchronous classes are those that require students and instructors to be online at the same time. They are most similar to regular classes, which require students to convene in-person for instruction.
An asynchronous online class allows you to take classes on your schedule. Instructors will provide all the materials you need to learn, including recorded lectures. You’ll have a time frame in which to connect to the class and complete your coursework, but you can do this anytime within that time frame.
If you want to enjoy something close to the traditional college experience, you should choose synchronous classes. This will give you more opportunities to interact with instructors and your classmates, and it will be more similar to in-person lectures. Asynchronous classes are better for busy students, students who work, or students who would rather complete coursework at a slower pace.
In the past, students of all ages either had to live on or near campus to acquire an education. Thanks to online learning, you can get an advanced education from anywhere — even your own home. Online higher education programs also open the entire country to classes, no matter the school offering them. For example, a student living in San Diego can take free online courses from Harvard without having to move to Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Advance your career
Whether by choice or necessity, more people over the age of 65 are in the workforce than ever before. The Pew Charitable Trusts reports that the share of older adults working or looking for jobs will increase from 19.6% in 2018 to 23.3% in 2028. This is based on research by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
If you’re still in the labor force, pursuing an online education may be just what you need to give your career an extra boost before retirement. Online certificate courses can provide you with a professional credential, and degree programs can open new opportunities to advance your career and earn a higher salary.
Neil Khaund, CEO of Livius Tutoring, a tutoring center that provides online SAT and ACT tutoring to prospective college students, says he has been inspired by his mother-in-law’s efforts to earn her online undergraduate degree. “Seeing her work every day on her degree is inspiring and has not only given her great purpose and a goal to strive towards, but has candidly informed some of my own programmatic choices to help students,” says Khaund. “There’s never been a better time for seniors to pursue online education, and with the multitude of both free and paid programs, it’s quite exhilarating to see some amazing goals achieved.”
How to pay for online classes
Higher learning programs for older adults are typically offered for free or at a discounted rate. It depends on what institution you apply to and which program you choose.
Keep in mind that the discounted rates only apply to the tuition associated with the program. You may have to pay for learning materials yourself. Thankfully, there are multiple ways to pay for online classes, and many of the options available to older adults are not available to younger students.
Here are a few of the best options for financing you should consider.
Outside of tuition fees (if there are any), you may need to pay additional fees to complete your education. Educational supplies like textbooks, notebooks, writing utensils and calculators will not be covered by the school or by any free tuition waiver program. You may also need to pay fees associated with applying for the program of your choice.
According to the nonprofit organization The College Board, the cost of books and supplies generally range from $1,240 to $1,460 for students enrolled in two-year and four-year institutions. However, the cost of your school supplies may be less than these averages if you’re taking classes online. They may be even smaller if you’re only taking one or two courses and not pursuing a degree or certificate.
If you do need to obtain financing for school supplies or tuition, a small personal loan can provide you with just the right amount of money, and nothing more. Personal loans can be used for just about anything, and many financial institutions offer loans as low as $1,000.
A tax credit won’t pay for your education directly. However, it will reduce the among of income tax you have to pay at the end of the year, which can offset at least some of the costs of your education. If your tax credit reduces the amount of tax you must pay to below zero, you can even get a tax refund from the credit.
The federal government offers two education tax credits to eligible applicants: the Lifetime Learning Credit and the American Opportunity Tax Credit. Each credit has its own rules for eligibility, but you must meet the following requirements to qualify for either:
- You, a dependent or a third party must pay for qualified higher education expenses.
- An eligible student must be enrolled at an eligible educational institution (the school must be able to participate in a student aid program run by the U.S. Department of Education).
- The eligible student is you, a spouse or a dependent who is listed on your tax return.
You cannot claim both credits in the same year. Here’s what you need to know about the two tax credits:
Lifetime Learning Credit
The Lifetime Learning Credit (LLC) is worth up to $2,000 per tax return. You can claim it once per year, and there is no limit to the number of years you can claim it. You can claim it if you meet the requirements listed above, but there are a few other restrictions on who can claim the LLC.
If your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) is over $58,000, the amount of your LLC gradually phases out based on how far over the limit you are. If you have a MAGI of $68,000 or more, you can’t claim the credit.
You can claim the credit with Form 1098-T, which your educational institution should provide to you.
The American Opportunity Tax Credit
The American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) is only available for eligible students who are pursuing their first four years of higher education. You can get an annual credit of up to $2,500 with the AOTC. However, only students who are pursuing a degree or other recognized academic credentials are eligible for this credit — you can’t claim it if you’re just taking individual courses.
If your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) is over $80,000, the amount of your AOTC will be gradually phased out as well. You can’t claim the AOTC if your MAGI is $90,000 or more.
“When I was an undergraduate student,” says Cyrus Vanover, MBA, author of Earn a Debt-Free College Degree, “there was a senior citizen in one of my classes. When asked why he was taking the class by another student, he responded, ‘I just want to learn!’ The best thing about taking online classes as a senior citizen is that you may not have to pay anything for them. Colleges and universities in all 50 states now offer either free or deeply discounted tuition to seniors.”
Many public colleges and universities offer tuition waivers to older adults who reside in the state where the school is located. These tuition waivers may apply to degree programs or individual courses. The age at which you qualify for these waivers depends on the rules of the institution, but many schools offer them to students who are 60 years of age or older.
It’s important to note that tuition waivers only apply to tuition fees associated with classes. They won’t help you pay for textbooks or other learning materials.
Schools may provide tuition waivers to a limited number of applicants each year, and they may place restrictions on when you can take classes (such as in the fall or spring). It’s best to apply long before classes begin. Check the financial aid section of your school’s website to determine if they offer tuition waivers to older adults or other groups:
- Tuition waiver for seniors: Tuition waivers allow a student who is an older adult to take classes for free or at a discounted rate. Most senior tuition waivers are offered to students over the age of 60, but the minimum age may vary by institution.
- Tuition waiver for social security disabled/retired individuals: Students who receive social security because they are disabled or retired may also be able to obtain a tuition waiver at some institutions. Your eligibility typically depends on your ability to prove that you receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits from the government.
- Tuition waiver for civil service disabled/retired individuals: Former federal employees who receive disability benefits or pension benefits may be able to apply for tuition waivers at some schools. Many institutions also offer tuition waivers to disabled veterans and first responders.
Consider auditing a course
If you aren’t interested in pursuing a degree, but you’d like to attend online higher education courses, you can consider auditing one. Auditing a course allows you to take the class for free, but you won’t be graded, and your work won’t provide credit toward a degree.
Many schools allow older adults to audit in-person classes for free, but not all of them will allow online courses to be audited. Check with your school first to see if you can audit an online course.
Online programs and degrees for seniors
If you’re considering taking an online higher education program, many colleges and universities offer full degree programs online and provide older adults a tuition waiver. Other schools may offer individual courses, lecture series and other programs for older adults at low cost or tuition-free.
Here are some schools and programs you should consider. Keep in mind that tuition waivers may only be available to in-state residents at some schools.
|INSTITUTION NAME||PROGRAM/DEGREE||TUITION WAIVER||AGE REQUIREMENT FOR TUITION WAIVER|
|University of Alaska||Certificates, Associate, Baccalaureate, Master’s||Yes||“Full Retirement Age” (Varies Per Applicant)|
|University of Arkansas||Certificates, Associate, Baccalaureate, Master’s, Licensure||Yes||60|
|Clemson University (South Carolina)||Baccalaureate, Master’s||Yes||60|
|The California State University||Baccalaureate, Master’s, Doctoral||Yes||60|
|University of Connecticut||Master’s||Yes||62|
|University of Delaware||Baccalaureate, Master’s||Yes||60|
|Georgia Institute of Technology||Master’s||Yes||62|
|University of Illinois||Baccalaureate, Master’s, Graduate Certificates||Yes||65|
|University of Maryland||Certificates, Baccalaureate, Master’s, Doctoral||Yes||60|
|University of Minnesota||Certificates, Associate, Baccalaureate, Master’s, Doctoral, Licensure||Yes||62|
|Mississippi State University||Certificates, Baccalaureate, Master’s, Doctoral||Yes||60|
|Montana State University Billings||Certificates, Associate, Baccalaureate, Master’s||Yes||65|
|University of New Hampshire||Two Credit-Bearing Classes Per Year||Yes||65|
|Ohio University||Baccalaureate, Master’s, Graduate Certificates||Yes||60|
|Pace University||Pace’s Active Retirement Community (PARC) Lecture Series||No||N/A|
|Penn State University||Certificates, Associate, Baccalaureate, Master’s, Doctoral||Yes||60|
|Community College of Rhode Island||General Business Degree, Over 200 Online Courses||Yes||60|
|San Francisco State University||The ElderCollege Program (Free Course Auditing for Ages 50+)||No||N/A|
|University of Washington||Baccalaureate, Master’s||No||N/A|
Other free online course options
In addition to programs offered by colleges, universities, and other accredited institutions of higher education, there are plenty of private and nonprofit organizations that offer free courses to older adults and others. These programs may not help you earn credit toward a degree, but they’re a great choice if you just want to learn more about a subject you’re interested in or keep your mind sharp.
Free online courses from Harvard University
If you’ve always wanted to take classes at Harvard, now is your chance to do it! Harvard is currently offering 75 online courses for free through their website. These are college-level courses that come in introductory, intermediate and advanced difficulty levels.
Harvard’s free online courses cover subjects like business, computer science, humanities, mathematics, programming and more. The school also offers several courses on religious traditions like Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. These courses are time-sensitive, so you’ll need to apply for individual courses before their start dates.
Class Central is an online platform that hosts free Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). MOOCs are typically made by universities and private companies. They are delivered in the form of video lessons, assessment tests and discussion forums.
Class Central hosts several free Ivy League courses from schools like Princeton, Harvard and Yale.
Coursera is an online education platform that reaches the entire globe. The platform does have courses that are accredited and can count toward a degree, but these are usually offered by colleges and universities using the platform that are accredited themselves. Coursera itself is not accredited by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), so not every course provided by the platform counts towards a degree.
To determine which courses will count toward a degree, simply navigate to the “Degrees” and “Certificates” pages on the Coursera website.
If you’re just looking for free learning opportunities, you can find over 1,500 free courses available through Coursera. Coursera offers free courses in history, law, computer programming, education and other subjects.
edX is a nonprofit organization founded by Harvard and MIT. The organization’s mission is to increase access to higher education for everyone, everywhere. You can even earn a degree through edX by taking their MicroBachelor’s® and MicroMaster’s® Programs, although they do cost money.
That said, there are over 2,000 free courses available through edX for older adults who are interested in learning. Courses on edX cover topics like architecture, business, design, economics, finance, science and more.
FutureLearn is an accredited online learning platform offering online degrees in business and management, language, science, teaching and other subjects. The platform is backed by educational partners in the U.K. and internationally.
Although FutureLearn’s degree programs cost money, you can still take over 50 of their short online courses for free. These courses cover subjects like collaborative working, psychology and digital skills.
Udacity is a private, non-accredited online education provider offering training courses in a variety of technology subjects, such as programming and development, cloud computing and data science. Udacity is currently offering one month of free access to its “Nanodegree” programs during the COVID-19 crisis.
This program may be limited and time-sensitive, so you should apply as soon as possible if you’re interested.
Udemy is a non-accredited online education platform that boasts over 295 million course enrollments. As a 100% online learning marketplace, the platform connects students from all over the world with courses.
The instructors Udemy uses are not professors, but they are professionals who are experts in their fields.
Udemy offers over 650 free courses in subjects ranging from web development and HTML coding to entrepreneurship and business development. The platform even offers free courses on fitness and meditation.
University of the People
The University of the People (UoPeople) is a non-profit, tuition-free, American-accredited online university that serves students around the world. The purpose of the school is to help qualified high school graduates overcome barriers to higher education, but anyone 16 or older can apply.
The school offers degrees in Business Administration (MBA, BS, AS), Computer Science (BS, MS), Health Science (BS, AS) and Education (M. Ed.). Although the school is tuition-free, there may be fees associated with applying and course assessment.
The bottom line
Online education is opening a world of opportunities for older adults. Not only can you pursue your educational goals for free or at a discount, but you can finally learn about the subjects that interest you most. There are multiple educational opportunities available online, whether you want to pursue a degree, learn a new trade or start a new hobby.
Most states offer some type up tuition waiver for senior citizens. In some cases, you may be able to pursue an entire degree online without having to pay tuition. But even if you just want to take a few online classes, the resources listed in this guide are a great place to start. Now is an excellent time to further your education as a senior citizen, and the resources for doing so are right at your fingertips.