Seniors sign up for classes: No homework and no tuition

Posted: Tuesday, January 23, 2001

TAMPA, Fla. -- During orientation, 35 students registering for classes at the University of South Florida were briefed on what to expect: no tests, no homework, no term papers, no tuition.

There was just one requirement.

''You have to be 60 years of age,'' Angie Denninger, program coordinator, told the group.

Tuition-free classes are open to senior citizens at Florida's 10 state universities. At USF, they are eligible for nine credit hours per semester in graduate or undergraduate classes at no cost, on a space available basis. No college credit is given under the tuition-waiver program.

''Response has been great. We are overwhelmed with success,'' said Lee Leavengood, 72, director of the Department of Senior Programs.

The tuition free winter semester attracted more than 140 seniors who signed up for everything from physics to Latin.

Steve Hearne, 64, registered recently for conversational Russian and Japanese. At $75 a credit hour, this was $600 worth of courses.

''If I had to pay I probably wouldn't be taking both at the same time,'' said Hearne, a retired U.S. Navy commander. His hobbies are language and travel. He has been at USF for four years studying languages, two courses at a time.

The program drew 99 men and 80 women last spring. Most were in the 60-65 age range. There were 27 students aged 75 to 80 and 11 over 80 years. Many already held college degrees.

Ray Burhop, who just turned 60, came to study the Civil War era, particularly the history of the 24th Illinois regiment.

''I've been working on it for the last 10-15 years. It's a hobby. I do a lot of research,'' he said as he filled out registration forms.

Years ago, his father-in-law told him about a relative who served with the unit. All he had was a name -- Private Paul Vogel -- who went West after the war and was never heard from again.

Burhop, a college graduate with an engineering degree, is now self-employed and finding more time to trace Vogel's life.

Sara Gilbert, 72, on the other hand, is a perennial student. She has been taking free classes under the 21-year-old program since 1989 and serves as a peer adviser to others.

''I have a great desire for knowledge. I will never learn all there is to learn. Nobody ever learns all there is to know,'' she said as scores of seniors waited in line to register at USF, which has an enrollment of 36,000 students and the highest senior enrollment among the 10 state universities.

Gilbert has worked her way -- two courses at a time -- through the anthropology and archaeology departments and studied humanities, international studies, religion and literature. This semester she is taking physical fitness and thinking of adding fine arts.

''Seniors set a great example for younger students,'' said Leavengood. ''Nobody is making them come to college. They can bring their own experience to a classroom. It certainly lets younger students know you can continue to learn and grow throughout a lifetime.''

The reasons they go back to school are varied but their commitment is serious. Some have had successful careers and now have time to pursue interests. Some are lifelong learners. Others are still working or find the social interaction stimulating.

The tuition-waiver program began in 1980. In the mid-1990s, USF's senior department added two programs.

In SeniorNet, adults over 50 learn to use computers. At the Learning in Retirement Institute, study groups run by seniors delve into issues. Both are part of national programs; the latter is connected to the Elderhostel Institute Network.

Dawn Headland, 60, works in sales at a pro shop and wanted to take a beginners computer class to help her in her work.

James Hall, 74, was interested in history and writing classes; his wife Patricia, 67, was hoping to take political science and music appreciation.

But they couldn't find time slots that suited their active lifestyle which includes water aerobics three times a week.

''We'll have to wait until next semester,'' Patricia Hall said. ''There were just too many conflicts with the other things we do.''

Public universities across the country have programs for seniors although formats may differ, said Leavengood, who has been director of senior programs since their inception.

''Generally,'' she said, ''very few people know about these programs or take advantage of them.''


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