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By Jennifer W. Eisenberg

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Senior workers are defined as post-55 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Senior citizens receive many discounts, and many institutions of higher learning and even entire states have programs to subsidize the cost of a senior wanting to return to school.

Seniors can expect a number of benefits including the possibility of free online college, the value of which varies on a program to program basis. The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, which is located at many colleges and universities, and various state programs allow seniors to attend or audit two or four-year schools.  There is also a variety of websites that offer certifications and coursework on many topics that are available for seniors at free or greatly reduced cost.

What Are the Benefits of Returning to College as a Senior?

There are many benefits for seniors who want to return to college to learn new things.  Benefits include cognitive sharpness, socialization, personal goals, as well as sharing experience and knowledge to contribute to others. Further, with cognitive emphasis includes technical skills that may best be learned in an academic online setting. As of this writing, you may be considering an alternate career path. You are not alone. Across-the-board growth in the elder workforce is expected.

Why Choose to Get Your College Degree Online?

Your costs will certainly be reduced in terms of travel, commute, or, especially, relocation. None of these are necessary when studying online.  Not everyone of the conventional retirement age currently utilizes online platforms. Those that do tend to do it all the time. It’s only fair to self-assess your level of comfort with this type of learning. For instance: are you among the regular visitors online? Reading this article implies that that is the case, but if you are not actually that accustomed to virtual life you aren’t destined to remain that way.

Speaking anecdotally, we know a number of folks nearing 80 that were not early adopters of anything but grew to accustom themselves to get access to what they loved most: newspapers, in particular, are so much more widely available in digital form. You may take advantage of your local library to make your time more social.  Among the benefits also includes your ability to apply your personal experience to count toward academic credit. There are some great online schools for seniors that offer credit for life experience.  This option has grown more popular among students with perhaps unconventional paths to college.

Certainly, you may be among those most comfortable with online learning. If you are able to at least overcome the discomfort the freedom to socialize online can be downright liberating. Online, you will be part of synchronous chatroom-like real-time interaction and also have available to you an asynchronous posting bulletin board-like archive where you can respond to other student and teacher posts. The latter provides an archive that relates directly to what you and your fellow students are studying. A further benefit for the post-55 crowd is the 24/7 availability and other elements that make online study suit your schedule as you choose. Not having to drive to your school eliminates any distance or transportation concerns.

Recent advances and popularization of Zoom technology may make it even more appealing to you, as the process is now easier to access and the bandwidth available for such offerings has increased so much.

How Can You Enroll in Online College?

You will have much less to worry about regarding any tests or personal statements. You merely need to meet the age requirement of 60 or so, be a US citizen, and have a high school diploma. Other benefits or waivers or get other financial consideration, you can look at each institution for the particular requirements and expectations.

Free Online College Courses for Senior Citizens – Scholarships, Discounts, and Waivers

Dozens of states have jumped on the bandwagon of offering tuition free or discounted college courses for senior citizens either on an auditing basis or for credit. Many restrictions and stipulations apply and the definition of “older” varies widely from state to state and is generally available only to legal residents of that state from some, but often not all, of the public higher education facilities existing there.

Aid Specifically for Seniors

Documenting the growth of “encore educations” — Georgia and Florida and California, among other states, make a greater and greater percentage of senior tuition waived for qualifying legal residents of their states. These are almost on a space-available basis, so no priority will be granted for registration in these cases. Indeed, in some programs, applicants in this class are last on this list, priority wise. That said, free or discounted college tuition for seniors is a great deal.  It is better than full price college, so waste not, want not.

Traditional College Resources

Should you wish to pursue an online education in a state that you do not reside in, there are still the usual list of resources available, namely, federal aid that can be accessed through the FAFSA, or, free application for federal student aid and private scholarships, some of which are aimed at your demographic.

The Best Online Universities for Senior Citizens

Many states have undertaken to reacquaint older students with all that the educational process has to offer. Some offer discounted tuition or a waiver of fees entirely, some are just constructed with an eye towards the needs of a nontraditional student. This list is by no means an exhaustive resource for the services available for this population. Indeed, it barely scratches the surface. What you need to know is that most of these programs are only available for residents of the states these universities are located in, so you need to see what your particular state of residence has to offer your demographic.


Below are twenty schools that either on their own or as part of a state initiative offer incentives for seniors to re-enter the educational process or are just a really good value, education-wise, offering in-demand degrees and fair prices, with the non-traditional student in mind. Since senior friendliness is a hard category to quantify, we selected a variety of schools with a variety of policies and presented them here in no ranking order. This is meant as a representative sample of the programs available for seniors, only.

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  1. The University of North Dakota offers both semester based and “enroll anytime” coursework for the dozens of degrees that the school features digitally. This top rated school started distance learning on its campus with correspondence courses by mail in the early 20th century and was an early adopter of internet education. From forensic psychology to engineering and education, the school issues degrees at the bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral levels. This school does not charge out of state tuition fees to non residents.

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  2. Charging just $366.75 per credit hour in tuition for undergraduate study, Mississippi State University is a value as well as a recognizable name in the higher education game. Undergraduate and graduate admissions are a completely online process that does not charge an application fee to students who have previously attended MSU. The school offers undergraduate degrees, graduate degrees, and graduate certificates online. This school participates in the Mississippi state program that guarantees free tuition for students 60 and older, even for online classes.

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  3. Senior citizen students at the University of West Florida are eligible for a tuition waiver (that does not cover online fees) and can audit most classes at the school, but not pursue a degree or college credit. This is a state policy, not the individual policy of the University of West Florida. The audit only college credit for seniors is a common feature of free college for retirees across multiple states. The school offers online baccalaureate and post baccalaureate degrees.

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  4. The College of Charleston in accordance with state policy, allows individuals who are 60+ and South Carolina residents to audit or take classes for credit exempt from tuition fees, though these students are liable for registration and other fees. This policy also applies to coursework at the graduate level. RThe school currently offers two undergraduate degrees and a certificate in project management fully online.

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  5. Since 2016, Rio Salado College and all of the Maricopa County Community Colleges have offered a 50% tuition waiver program for students aged 65 and older. The school also partners with the City of Tempe and others to “re-career” 50 years plus adults as teachers in the primary and secondary school system. The 50% tuition discount will get you pretty far, when you hear that tuition for Maricopa County residents is a cool $85 per credit hour.

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  6. Western Governors University has a very generous scholarship program that senior citizens are welcome to avail themselves of. The school also features a very low tuition rate, to start with, for both of its two six month terms per year, WGU also only offers degrees in four areas: teaching; business; IT and computers; and health and nursing. By focusing on areas where demand for jobs is solid and likely to remain so, this school guarantees its relevancy and graduate success rate in a canny fashion.

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  7. The State of Kansas allows Fort Hays State University to waive tuition for Sunflower State residents who are 60 years of age or older. These students may audit classwork but may not receive college credit for their coursework. Thi school has one of the widest selections of available online degrees and among the lowest tuitions, should you reside outside Kansas or need to seek college credit. The program also has a robust scholarship regime and a policy in place to deal with new and transferring students who aren’t yet sure exactly what they are looking for in a college.

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  8. Lurleen B. Wallace Community College and most of the other two year public colleges in the Heart of DIxie participate in a program where anyone over 60 years of age who otherwise meets admission requirements for the school can receive free tuition. These students must enroll for credit courses, as auditing is not allowed for this program. This program only works one time per course. Should a course need to be repeated, the student is responsible for all fees. And this program is allowed strictly on a space allowed basis. Courses cannot be expanded to accommodate students on the Senior Adult Scholarship Program. This also applies to online coursework.

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  9. The University of Maryland Global Campus features something called the Golden ID program where students who are 60 years or older and meet certain other criteria (such as being employed a maximum of less than half time weekly hours) may register for some undergraduate or graduate hours on a limited, space available access system without incurring tuition costs. These students are responsible for any resulting fees (such as online course fees) and there are several restrictions, such as not being able to enroll in 800 level courses or doctoral programs. This program applies to all the schools in the University of Maryland system, but UMGC has the most online classes, so it is the most pertinent member.

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  10. Any citizen residing in the Volunteer State who turns 60 years old during that academic term (or is older) qualifies for exceedingly reduced tuition at Austin Peay State University and select other public institutions of higher learning on a space available, non degree seeking or for credit basis. The school offers a large number of graduate certificates, fourteen graduate degrees, fourteen bachelor’s degrees and two associates degrees online. The tuition discount available is for a maximum charge of $70 per credit hour and all applicable fees being the student’s responsibility.

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  11. Thomas Edison State University is a state institution that was designed with the older more nontraditional college student in mind. This school offers a number of highly desirable degrees at reasonable prices, but does not, per se have a senior citizen tuition discount available. The school is regionally accredited and eligible for all federal and state aid but does not, as far as we could tell, participate in the New Jersey tuition waiver program for older adults.

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  12. According to Act 678 of 1975, Arkansas State University will grant full tuition and fee waivers to any student 60 years or older who is a legal resident of Arkansas. This does not apply to audited courses and is only available on a space available basis. The school has a number of online degree and certificate programs on offer, including an associate of general studies, a bachelor of science in digital innovation, a bachelor of arts in criminology, and an MBA.

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  13. The University of Massachusetts Amherst participates in the Senior Citizen Tuition Credit Affidavit Program which allows a tuition credit of up to $857 for undergraduate study and $1320 for graduate study per semester. This credit is not eligible to be used for courses offered through continuing and professional education, but online courses through other colleges do seem to be eligible. There does not seem to be a restriction as to for credit/auditing classes.

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  14. Chadron State College

    Chadron State College allows persons 65 years or older to take one course per term on an audit basis with all tuition (but not fees) waived. This is available on a space contingent basis. All schools in the Nebraska State College system participate in this program, but each school sets their own terms. Additional enrollment in this program shall not exceed 4% of gross tuition, at school discretion. Students must reapply for this credit every term.

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  15. James Madison University features an income requirement for those wishing to pursue for credit coursework after age 60, that the taxable income not exceed $23,850 for the year preceding that student seeking enrollment in the state of Virginia. To register to audit classes at JMU, there is no income requirement, just that the student be of age and able to pass admission requirements. The student must also have been a legal resident of the state for a year before seeking enrollment in this program.

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  16. The University of Florida has a feature that allows legal residents of the Sunshine State age 60 and over to audit a course for free on a space available basis with the permission of the dean of the college offering the course. There is no language on the school website to imply that this does not include online coursework in this benefit. Students eligible for this credit can be bumped from a class in favor of students receiving a public employee tuition benefit or person paying full fees.

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  17. George Mason University abides by the same income requirements at James Madison University and further specifies that a student may enroll in no more than three courses per term and students in this program may be denied enrollment on a space available basis. All students applying for this benefit must meet admission requirements otherwise and be a legal resident of at least one year of the state of Virginia.

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  18. Texas Tech University students must apply once for the 55 year old exemption on tuition to receive a credit for 6 free hours of tuition in classes where space is available and not needed by fee paying students. The purpose of this program is to help older adults access education and stay involved with participating public institutions of higher learning.

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  19. St. Cloud State University specified that students be legal residents and at least 62 years of age to qualify for a rate of a $20 per credit hour administrative fee for grade awarding classes, and free for auditing classes, on a space available basis. This even applies to doctoral programs, assuming that space is available, enrollments caps have not been reached, and all fee paying students have been accommodated.

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  20. Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania accommodates students who are 60+ on a space available, non degree seeking basis. These students who can prove Pennsylvania residency and qualify no non-degree seeking admission will receive a complete tuition waiver, but remain responsible for all applicable fees. Further, these students will receive no priority in their registration, being assigned category 7 in importance.

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