Go to college for free if you're over 50

Throughout the country, special programs make it possible

Last updated: August 31, 2015 03:30 PM

Here's a paradox: If you're young and eager to complete a college degree, the expenses can be crushing. But if you're 50-plus and in no hurry, you may be able to get that same education for free.

Want to study social work for a career reboot? Brush up on your computer skills? Or take up ancient Greek just for the heck of it? Thanks to programs and discounts for mature students, you can find free and inexpensive college courses—in classrooms and online—to keep your brain active.

Find free courses

At many state universities and colleges, residents 60 and older who meet set requirements can use tuition waivers to take for-credit courses, gratis. If courses for credit aren't offered, mature students might still be able to audit a class without paying, gaining no credit but gleaning plenty of knowledge.

Have you taken classes for free?

Tell us about the experience in the comments section below.

The public Michigan Technological University in Houghton, Mich., for instance, waives tuition for anyone 60 or older. Students can audit or take classes for credit. A few such students are working toward a degree, a spokesperson told us.

Private colleges can be generous, too. The College of Wooster, in Wooster, Ohio, for example, lets community members of all ages audit one course per semester free (see "Community Audits" on their registrar's page). Participants must receive approval from the provost and the teacher, and paying students get first dibs. But mature students are rarely turned away, a representative told us.

The Bernard Osher Foundation endows more than 100 "lifelong learning" programs for students 50 and older at educational institutions nationwide. At the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at San Diego State University's College of Extended Studies, for instance, students pay as little as $35 per course. Lifelong-learning students don't get college credit, but they can get quality instruction for a song. At Laura and Alvin Siegal Lifelong Learning Program at Case Western Reserve University, top-notch professors mix it up with students hungry for meaty discussion in four-to-eight-week courses, most in the $80 to $115 range.

Find out about senior discounts, and access retirement resources and information through Consumer Reports Retirement Planning Guide.

Seek even more variety online

If face time with professors isn't a priority, jump on the Internet and join a massive open online course, or MOOC. Some of the courses offered by name-brand universities attract more than 100,000 students. Typically, you'll watch a professor's lecture first. Then you might join online discussions and projects with other students, or take proctored quizzes and exams. You might need to use social media such as Facebook and other online tools. Or you can just enjoy the lectures and ignore the tests and homework.

You can find free online courses from many universities and colleges through companies such as Coursera, edX, and Udacity, and through aggregator sites such as Class-central. Recent six-week course offerings on Coursera included Songwriting (Berklee College of Music), Chinese for Beginners (Peking University), and the Analysis of Algorithms (Princeton). Skynet University, sponsored by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, offers students remote access to telescopes in Australia, Chile, and other places.

Though most online courses are free, you may have to buy the professor's textbook for the full experience. (Coursera has free access to some e-textbooks though Chegg, a textbook sales and rental service.) But paid, MOOC-based degrees may become commonplace. Udacity, AT&T, and Georgia Tech now have a collaboration to offer an online-only master's degree program in computer science for just $6,600.

Use available tax breaks

Whatever costs you accrue in your coursework, take advantage of federal tax breaks for college tuition, fees, and supplies. With all educational tax breaks, income requirements and other conditions apply. For details, check out IRS Publication 970, "Tax Benefits for Education."

And if your kids and grandkids didn't somehow exhaust the funds in any 529 educational savings accounts you set up in their behalf, make yourself the beneficiary and spend those funds toward your tuition, fees, books, and other qualified expenses. Now, without homework or tests, it's your turn to have some fun.

—Tobie Stanger (@TobieStanger on Twitter)

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