Learning for life

How can you fight isolation or boredom? Go back to school (on your terms) for free!

George Quast
George Quast of Hutchinson has taken a variety of classes at Ridgewater College, including anatomy, sociology and accounting.

When Doug Hanneman and I founded Good Age in 1981, one of the first subjects we wrote about was the many benefits older adults receive from taking college courses.

And with all Minnesota state universities, community colleges and technical colleges offering nearly free tuition for people age 62 or older (by law), it wasn’t a hard sell.

Doug and I were students on the newspaper staff at Inver Hills Community College in Inver Grove Heights in the mid-1970s. The college had an excellent journalism program at the time that spawned a top correspondent for the Star Tribune and the St. Paul Pioneer Press as well as our own budding journalism careers.

Starting out

After his student days, Doug didn’t have to go far for employment. He edited a newsletter for DARTS, an agency providing services to older adults in Dakota County, which happened to be located just upstairs from where our student newspaper offices had been.

But as time went on, he wanted to bring needed information to older Twin Citians beyond Dakota County. He hatched the idea of Good Age as a free-distribution newspaper in the St. Paul area, and asked me to help him get it started.

As editor, Doug often included articles about the many opportunities to take classes at colleges in the area. Studies show such classes engage elders’ interests in new subjects, and keep them socially connected, too.

As the newspaper found its financial footing with support from the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, Doug continued as editor and I returned to Inver Hills to teach speech and journalism.

Where we’ve been

Doug’s success as editor of Good Age later earned him offers to edit the South Washington County Bulletin and Hutchinson Leader newspapers, from which he retired a year ago. I spent two decades fundraising for nonprofits in Washington, D.C., and returned last year to teach part time again at Inver Hills.

When I returned to campus last summer, I was pleased to see Good Age — still going after 38 years — was being distributed outside the college bookstore.

I let Doug know the publication we had founded was right there where our journalism studies had all started. That got us talking about how more people age 62 and older would benefit if they knew they could take classes at public colleges for almost no tuition!

Doug serves on an advisory committee at Ridgewater College in Hutchinson, so he talked with leaders there about how to tell more people age 62 or older about the opportunity, and I started informing senior centers and others in the communities surrounding Inver Hills.

Why do colleges do this? It’s the law. The Senior Citizen Education Program is part of a decades-old Minnesota statute that requires all state-supported institutions of higher education to offer free classes for seniors. (Many other status have similar laws.)

Don Parker

Lifelong learning

A friend of Doug’s in Hutchinson, 69-year-old George Quast, has taken several classes at Ridgewater, and he’s a firm believer in their value.

“I’ve learned so much from the teachers and the other students,” Quast said. “Some of the kids are so focused and they come from all backgrounds.”

Quast said his greatest satisfaction has come from his interaction with fellow students and teachers.

“I’ve listened to these young people and the direction they are taking and it’s been a wonderful experience,” he said. “I like the challenge of learning from them.”

Later-in-life college classes even have the potential to bring married, older-adult couples closer together: After retiring, then-70-year-old Petra Vasquez wanted to learn Spanish. Her grandparents were from Mexico, but she hadn’t learned the language growing up in South St. Paul.

Her daughter, Michele Zywiec, explained: “One day, she decided to sign up for a four-credit course at Inver Hills. My dad (Mike) wanted no part of going to school, but he ended up going to class with my mom. They had so much fun they accepted an invitation from their instructor to go on a class trip to Spain. They loved it!”


Even decades ago, when Good Age was still in its original newspaper format, we wrote about studies that showed attending college classes prevents social isolation among older adults, expands their horizons and interests, and that interacting with younger students was very good for both generations.

“I remember when I was a sophomore at Inver Hills, I took a history class about World War II,” Doug recalled. “We had the usual younger students like me, but we also had many World War II veterans who took the class, people who were in their 50s and early 60s then, and we learned so much hearing from them and talking to them. It’s an experience I’m glad we all had.”

Serving older adults

Inver Hills has continued that commitment to adult learning, last year being ranked 12th nationally in a Washington Monthly survey for best services and programs for adult students. And that commitment extends throughout the staff.

My dean at Inver Hills, Dr. Barb Curchack, is a neuropsychologist who specialized in memory and aging before becoming a psychology instructor here. In all her classes that focused on brain and lifespan development, she stressed the research on the cognitive benefits of intellectual and physical exercise that comes from taking courses. She also believes in the social benefits for seniors.

Today, faculty and staffers throughout Ridgewater College, Inver Hills Community College, and colleges all over the state want to let older Minnesotans know they can benefit in so many ways from these classes.

It’s a chance to get some great education for almost nothing. How can you beat that?

Learn more

Are you 62 or older? You can take college classes at the University of Minnesota, Minnesota state universities, state community colleges and state technical colleges for almost no cost: Though most colleges charge nominal fees, tuition is free for seniors who audit classes (versus taking them for college credits). Some private colleges may also offer discounts. Here are a few public options to check out in the Twin Cities:

Don Parker and Doug Hanneman founded Good Age in 1981.