Robert Larson is almost out of courses to take at Ohio Wesleyan University. But the 80-year-old retired history instructor and full-time Civil War buff hasn't missed a semester in some 15 years, and he isn't about to start now.
"To stay away from the college atmosphere is unthinkable," said Larson of Delaware, Ohio, who started a Civil War class this month. "I've got to be a part of this. Too often you read about people who fade away after retirement, doing nothing but sitting around as couch potatoes."
Longer, healthier and wealthier retirements have fueled a graying population's increased demand for continued education. Seniors seeking personal growth, or even second careers, are sitting in on college lectures, taking weekend professional seminars, or dialing up courses on the Internet.
Education Department figures show that during the 1990s, the number of students over age 60 nearly doubled. Roughly 8 million older Americans are taking part-time courses, employee training seminars or other classes unrelated to full-time college degrees.
And it's not just because there are more older Americans today: In 1991, 12 percent of Americans over age 60 took such courses; by 1999, that rate had risen to 23 percent.
Few older adults go back to college full-time seeking degrees, but their numbers also rose. In 1991, there were 5,500 full-time college students 65 and older; in 1999, there were 6,226.
College officials are rolling out the welcome mat for seniors, said Tim McDonough, a spokesman for the American Council on Education, a Washington-based organization of colleges.
College part-timers like Larson at Ohio Wesleyan often get reduced or even free courses if there are openings. Other schools offer classes and programs tailored to older students, said Norma Kent, spokeswoman for the American Association of Community Colleges.
"They don't have to be embarrassed about sitting next to a whiz-bang 18-year-old who's had a computer since birth," Kent said.
In a look at how seniors want to learn, an AARP survey found that a third of randomly selected senior adults were willing to learn on the Internet stressing they wanted environments more flexible than classrooms. Annette Norsman, director of the National Retired Teachers Assn., a division of the American Association of Retired Persons, says the organization wants to create a Web community where seniors nationwide can find classes and other information.
When Rudy Michalek, 57, had bypass surgery a few months ago, he turned to the Web to find out more about the workings of the heart and how to improve his diet.
Michalek, a retired nursing home administrator from Dallas, said the Internet opens new doors to learning for retirees, just as it has for youth: "There are a number of ladies and gentlemen who would be very hesitant to go off to a classroom setting."