Magazine Perspective

Make Lifelong Learning Real

In serving older adults, higher ed institutions benefit, too

By Eugenia Proctor Gerdes

Winter 2022

College and university mission statements commonly emphasize preparing undergraduates for lifelong learning. But do we really understand what that means? Articles about the value of lifelong learning emphasize the rapidly changing challenges of the twenty-first-century workplace. However, true lifelong learning extends beyond the working years. Those sixty-five and older—already more than 16 percent of Americans—make up the fastest-growing segment of the population, according to the US Census Bureau. Higher education institutions that espouse lifelong learning should attend to the so-called third age, the productive years after retirement, by supporting lifelong learning institutes (LLIs).

To be honest, when I was dean of Bucknell University’s College of Arts and Sciences, I was not very helpful to the retiring faculty members who first proposed an LLI in 2004. Fortunately, in 2008, Bucknell hired a provost, Mick Smyer, who is an expert in aging. He saw the relevance to the university’s mission and helped establish the Bucknell Institute for Lifelong Learning (BILL) in 2009. By the end of its first decade, BILL had more than three hundred members and was offering forty-five to fifty courses and eight stand-alone lectures each year. Retired BILL members with appropriate expertise volunteer to teach the courses, which attract senior learners not only from our college town but from places a forty-five-minute drive away. Bucknell faculty and community leaders contribute the stand-alone lectures without compensation.

A true convert, I have personally benefitted from and contributed to BILL since my retirement. I’ve taken courses close to my academic interests, including exploring the history of US first ladies and of the Nineteenth Amendment, as well as courses on topics well beyond my previous expertise: singing Neanderthals, local architecture, Plato, American Indian tribes, the history and future of estate planning, twentieth-century music, and Impressionism. I’ve taught courses for BILL on subjects including women and leadership, sexual harassment, and women and aging. I served on BILL’s special presentation committee and curriculum committee before chairing the steering committee. These experiences keep important parts of my brain from “retiring.”

More than four hundred LLIs across the United States provide college-level, noncredit educational experiences for older adults, usually those who are over age fifty. Although varied in their organization and funding, most LLIs are run by volunteers yet are affiliated with colleges and universities from which they receive some administrative assistance, although not necessarily financial support. The first LLIs began in the 1960s; the number has grown dramatically since the 1980s, facilitated by the former Elderhostel Institute Network, now called the Road Scholar LLI Resource Network. Since 2001, the Bernard Osher Foundation has provided substantial grant funding for 125 LLIs, known as Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes, or OLLIs. Road Scholar and the Bernard Osher Foundation both maintain comprehensive lists of LLIs and provide online newsletters and resources.

BILL’s mission, similar to those of other LLIs, is “to engage senior learners from a wide range of educational backgrounds in creative and intellectual activities that expand their horizons, invigorate their minds, stimulate curiosity and the joy of learning, and provide opportunities for social interaction.” Sharing life experiences is also a common characteristic of LLIs. Research on lifelong learning activities, including formal learning programs like LLIs, indicates that participation is associated with better cognitive, emotional, and physical health. The benefits to individual participants are substantial.

But how do LLIs benefit their sponsoring institutions? And, as they face enrollment challenges and financial uncertainty, why should colleges and universities commit to a new LLI or continue to support one? The advantages to academic host institutions are numerous. The Road Scholar website points to enhanced public perception, intergenerational opportunities for undergraduates, and the opportunity to “fulfill your school’s responsibility to act as an educational resource,” as well as LLI members marketing the institution to their children and grandchildren, attending campus cultural events, volunteering, and donating to the institution. I would add two more possible benefits: increasing the educational opportunities for local alumni and providing participants and sources for research on aging or local history. BILL members, for example, recently described their experiences during Hurricane Agnes in 1972 as part of a student-faculty research project.

In a survey of members from eleven OLLIs conducted by Jon Charles Neidy for his 2019 dissertation at Illinois State University, 18.9 percent of all respondents and 14.5 percent of those who were not alumni reported that they had donated to their host institution or to both the host institution and the OLLI. The inclination to donate increased with length of participation and with higher engagement, commitment, satisfaction, and sense of community. Members of successful LLIs represent a pool of possible donors, especially if the host institution demonstrates its contributions to the LLI’s success.

Host institutions might support LLIs by providing funding, use of office or classroom space or dining facilities, access to programs or the library, administrative support, inclusion in liability insurance or 501c3 status, or even instructors. Although the type of assistance varies, some sort of support appears necessary for the LLI to succeed. Some LLIs receive staffing assistance through an on-campus office, such as continuing education or civic engagement; some LLIs hire their own part-time or full-time staff person; and some use only volunteers. LLIs charge their own fees for membership and tuition, although the cost varies widely depending on expenses and funding.

At BILL, we consider ourselves self-funded. We rent some office and classroom space off campus, and community organizations provide additional space for classes and large lectures. Our membership and tuition fees plus donations cover our rent, course expenses, receptions, publications, and a part-time staff position. Nevertheless, we need Bucknell support—we report to the provost’s office and have the same administrative support that a Bucknell department would have in terms of website maintenance; legal advice; accounting services, including processing our revenues and expenditures; ability to purchase services through the university; and the like. Overall, we don’t substantially increase the university’s expenses.

Host institutions of LLIs can reap substantial rewards at minimal cost. But let’s not forget that nonprofit institutions of higher education are supposed to look out for the common good, not just their own bottom line. Community well-being is enhanced when older adults are actively engaged, making them healthier and happier. Lifelong learning activities, including LLIs, increase the social capital of older adults, which enhances community well-being as well as personal well-being, argue Sharan B. Merriam and Youngwha Kee in a 2014 article in Adult Education Quarterly. Alongside their responsibility for the common good, higher education institutions benefit from being situated in communities attractive to their students, employees, alumni, and retirees.

Overall, LLIs foster healthier communities more favorably disposed toward the sponsoring colleges or universities, while also presenting valuable opportunities to individual participants. If you have the chance to influence decisions about your institution’s support of an LLI, remember the low costs, the substantial benefits for the institution, and the common good. Finally, keep this in mind: If you are not yet an older adult, you will become one if you are lucky. You’ll want an LLI in your community.

Photo: A student presents during the Bucknell Institute for Lifelong Learning class “The Devil’s Cloth: An Artistic Investigation into the Varied and Controversial Stripe.” (Credit: William C. Brobst)


  • Eugenia Proctor Gerdes

    Eugenia Proctor Gerdes

    Eugenia Proctor Gerdes is a dean emerita of the College of Arts and Sciences and a professor emerita of psychology at Bucknell University. She chairs the steering committee of the Bucknell Institute for Lifelong Learning.