The next time you’re on a college campus, take a look around. That fifty-something man in the tweed jacket? The sixty-something woman with a leather tote full of papers?

Don’t assume they’re faculty—it’s just as likely they’re students.

“We talk a lot about diversity on campus, but ageism is often overlooked.”
Joann Montepare
Fuss Center for Research on Aging and Intergenerational Studies

Over the past decade, there’s been an upswing in adults 50 and older attending two and four-year colleges, or getting graduate degrees. Their reasons vary, from finally finishing that on-hold bachelor’s degree to advancing existing careers to launching second acts. Some go simply for the love of learning. 

Some adult learners prefer a traditional classroom; others, the flexibility of online courses. Either way, older students say the academic environment must accommodate their busy lives and multiple responsibilities. More colleges and universities are recognizing this trend, sparking a formalized, growing age-friendly university, or AFU, movement.

An age-friendly university is different than existing programs specifically designed for older adults like the Osher Lifelong Learning Centers, or traditional online degree programs.

It’s not “colleges for old people,” says Joann Montepare, who directs the Fuss Center for Research on Aging and Intergenerational Studies at Lasell College in Newton, Mass.

It’s more of a campus-wide effort, often spearheaded by a gerontology program or center on aging, which helps make sure that older adults are included in all aspects of university programs, disciplines, and policies.

“We talk a lot about diversity on campus but ageism is often overlooked,’’ she says.

A cultural shift

How a campus decides to be age-friendly can range from intergenerational learning to improving infrastructure, such as lighting in parking lots or more ramps to sidewalks. 

This approach benefits everyone.

“It’s really about a cultural shift in how universities do things,” Montepare says.

More than 600,000 adults age 50 and up were enrolled in public or private colleges in 2011, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. By 2015, enrollment had increased to nearly 700,000. 

These numbers are projected to rise as the population continues to age, says Montepare, who made the case for more age-friendly universities during the Gerontological Society of America Conference this past November. 

“These changing demographics are a defining issue of our time,” she says.

One reason: more Baby Boomers plan to work beyond traditional retirement age and need to keep skills current.

A little scary

The age-friendly university movement migrated here from Dublin, Ireland, in 2015. Since then, 45 academic institutions in the U.S.(ranging from UCLA to Washington University in St. Louis) and dozens of others around the world, have formally adopted the AFU framework.

I definitely felt intimidated at first.”
Alonzo Walker, 56
Earned his doctorate in education in 2018

 They’ve agreed to follow a set of core principles, including encouraging older adults’ participation in all aspects of university life, promoting personal development and careers for the second half of life, and enhancing older adults’ access to a university’s range of health, wellness, and arts programs. 

Sitting in a classroom with students less than half your age can be scary, says Alonzo Walker, 56, a human resources consultant in Chicago who earned his doctorate in education in 2018. He was the oldest one in his program. 

“I definitely felt intimidated at first,” he says. “Then something clicked and I realized that I could use my real life experiences to my advantage. It’s something that those who had only spent their life in a classroom could not do.” 

Second acts

A report from the research firm Deloitte notes that some schools, like the University of Wisconsin, are shifting to competency-based degrees, rather than focusing on the standard credit-hour approach. 

These degrees reward previous experience and assess knowledge through demonstrated mastery of a subject — allowing students to progress at their own pace, regardless of the time it takes to complete a degree. They also count a student’s relevant life experience towards advancement.

“I was too young to just retire, so at age 59, I decided to invest in myself and return to school for my MFA.”
Mark Shavin, 62
Graduated with MFA in 2018

According to the AFU principles, an age-friendly university promotes learning at all stages of an adult’s life and career. Support for a second-act career was important to former Atlanta television producer Mark Shavin, when thinking about his next step after more than a quarter-century in broadcasting. 

“I was too young to just retire, so at age 59, I decided to invest in myself and return to school for my MFA,” he says. “It allowed me to spend those next couple of years taking a dive deep into a book I’ve been working on and off for 40 years and prepare me for a second career.”

Shavin, now 62, graduated from the University of Georgia, Athens in 2018 and currently teaches broadcast journalism there. He’s also shopping around for a book agent. His says his program was truly intergenerational—fellow students ranged from their 20s to “older than me.”

Beyond aging

Montepare, whose students “range from 18 to 88,” says teaching in a more age-friendly of environment helps her better understand and approach issues around getting older.

The center she directs is housed in a continuing care retirement community that’s located on campus. Residents are required to agree to a 450-hour formal continuing education program. And the center offers tips on how to incorporate aging and intergenerational activities into any course.

“The vast majority of our traditional students graduate with negligible knowledge of aging.”
Joann Montepare
Fuss Center for Research on Aging and Intergenerational Studies

Montepare says that no matter what the subject—the environment, politics, fashion—teaching and learning reach new heights when different generations are brought together. The collaboration between gerontology programs and other departments on campus is growing. 

“It goes beyond aging,” she says. 

On a broader level, more age-friendly, age-integrated, and age-diverse campuses can play a key role in addressing widespread and insidious ageism, which is partly fueled by our age-segregated institutions and communities, says Montepare. 

“The vast majority of our traditional students graduate with negligible knowledge of aging, unless they happen to find their way to one of our courses,” she says. “We’re doing them a great disservice by not helping them gain competency around issues that will have tremendous personal and professional consequences in atheir lives — no matter what their college major.”

A generational mix

Of course, colleges can be age-friendly without formally adopting the AFU principles.

But the framework provides a roadmap to ensure schools collaborate with, include, and reach out to older adults on campus and off, says Carrie Andreoletti, a psychology professor at Central Connecticut State University who helped spearhead her school’s AFU initiative. 

CCSU’s Office of Continuing Education has partnered with the gerontology faculty and AARP to host workshops on an array of topics, including disrupting aging, careers in aging, and fraud protection. 

If you’re on the fence because you fear you won’t fit in, don’t be.

They also look for opportunities in and out of classrooms to break down negative stereotypes and misinformation young and old people have about one another. 

“We’re interested in increasing opportunities for intergenerational learning, which could include service-learning projects that could provide younger and older adults opportunities for collaboration and community engagement,” she says.

In addition to age-integrated classes, age-friendly universities offer older adults other ways to participate in campus life, volunteering as a tutor or mentor, or participating in research studies. Simple policy changes, like expanding financial aid office hours or making tech support available on weekends is another feature of an age-friendly campus.  

If you are on the fence about returning to school because you fear you won’t fit in, don’t be, says Walker.

He commuted three hours each way, several times a week, from Chicago to the University of Illinois, Champaign to attend a program that he felt was a perfect fit. 

“The only barriers are in your mind.” 

This article was written with the support of a journalism fellowship from the Gerontological Society of America, Journalists Network on Generations and AARP.