You could call them golden-agers. Senior citizens. Older Americans. Retirees.
Or, you could think of them as the new kids on campus. Latter-day learners, they've got the time, finally, to do what they spent a good part of their lives paying for their children to do: They're going to college.
"A lot of them are healthier than older people might have been in the past; they've retired earlier than they might have in the past; they're better educated than the former generation of seniors, and they want to learn more about the world . . .," says Jerrold Casway, professor of history at Howard Community College.
And across the board, centers of higher education are opening their doors to -- and sometimes planning programs for -- people over 55. Nearly a quarter of a million people past 60 -- including 11,000 Marylanders -- participate in Elderhostel, a Boston-based network of 1,800 colleges, universities and study centers throughout the United States, Canada and 45 foreign countries. At the College of Notre Dame, the Renaissance Institute for people past 55 has 200 members enrolled as it begins its third year.
In Maryland, community colleges welcome seniors with tuition-free courses designed specifically for the post-60 set along with an invitation to join the undergraduates, when space is available, in regular classes.
For the past eight years, Lois Jones of Catonsville has been picking and choosing among the courses at Catonsville Community College, taking interesting subjects -- from oceanography to literature -- that are taught at convenient times.
"At age 70, I don't think anyone is going to be looking to hire me," she said, explaining her eclectic curricular choices.
"Most of us took required courses in our own school days," said Jan Weinberg, a psychotherapist with a part-time practice in Pikesville, who has been sampling the studies at the Renaissance Institute. "[Going back to school] appeals to me because I can take courses I've always wanted to take," she explained.
At 57, Mrs. Weinberg barely squeaks past the minimum age for the institute, which is sometimes described as a "learning cooperative" in which a curriculum committee decides what's to be taught, and who among the members has enough vocational or avocational expertise to be a volunteer teacher.
And some of the teachers weigh in with impressive credentials: Thomas D'Alesandro III, Baltimore's mayor from 1967 to 1971, is the shoo-in for an ever-popular 13-week course on Maryland politics.
Elderhostels offer a different sort of educational buffet. In this country, one-week programs are offered, as well as campus activities and trips. Overseas programs generally last longer.
Some or all of the Elderhostel subjects may be the specialty of the house. For example, at the Peabody Institute -- known as a "supersite" because of its popularity -- that often means music, music, music!
Beethoven's symphonies, concertos and sonatas are what first attracted Phil and Miriam Goulding of Potomac last year; Brahms, Chopin, and 20th century music brought them back for a second session.
"We did it entirely for the program; we wanted to learn about the music," said Mr. Goulding, 70, an author and scholar whose career has included stints as Washington bureau chief for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and vice president for public affairs for the American Petroleum Institute.
But, Mr. Goulding added, some people choose their Elderhostel by locale: They pick a place they want to visit, and then find an Elderhostel to go with it.
Costs also may be a consideration. Elderhostels in the United States cost about $300 per week per person, plus travel expenses. Foreign Elderhostels cost more; air fare is usually included in the price. Dues at the Renaissance Institute are $250 a year for one person, $200 more for a couple.
Whatever the program, the impact on the individual can be dramatic.
"They come . . . and they're inspired when they find their brains have not atrophied," said Mary Payton, coordinator of a one-day-a-week, non-credit program called "Friendly Seniors" at Essex Community College.
Sometimes, she continued, the participants are so buoyed by the discovery that they move into regular classes. "A number of folks have gone on to take some credit courses, and eventually got their AA degree," she continued, "and then they've gone to Towson for a bachelor's."
When senior students are in class with their juniors, their contributions are outstanding, according to Dr. Casway. "Often they can give anecdotes about history, about periods of time they've lived through," he said. "They have an experiential view of the lesson."
Their experiential view of life also allows them to relax and enjoy the learning.
Mrs. Jones, for instance, had "a few qualms" when she started going to class with youngsters at Catonsville. But very quickly she found, "The young kids were more nervous than I was. I guess, at our age, you don't mind if you make a mistake."
For more information about national and international Elderhostels, write to Elderhostel, 75 Federal St., Boston, Mass. 02110. For information about Elderhostels in Maryland and Washington, call 830-3437.
For information about the Renaissance Institute, call 532-5351.
Or, call your nearest community college to find out what kind of seniors-only or regular classes are available. HC