Schooling for Seniors

I was sitting around with my roommates a few years ago and the subject of retirement came up, as did the subject of finding low rent accommodation. I recounted an experience I had trying to find low-cost housing in Los Angeles in the summer. College dorms and fraternity houses were desperate to rent to those who would only stay for the summer, but you needed an .edu email address. This is not impossible, but neither is it trivial. Inspired by thoughts of Rodney Dangerfield’s Back to School, I tried to get in touch with frat houses at UCLA and USC. Despite my best efforts, I was unable to reach any of them (a Vonage line would have helped).

Before the days of the Internet, I used to have a “how to” manual with listings of universities that rented out college dorms in the summer. I used the book to secure housing while studying and taking the Louisiana Bar Exam. I no longer remember the name of the book. Pity. It was a good idea.

Somehow the two ideas merged: back to school and free or near-free rent. The dark clouds parted and rays from the heavens illuminated my surroundings. I heard the choir of angels sing.

For years my aunt lived in Champaign, Illinois, the home of the University of Illinois, a mere three hours by car south of Chicago. State money flows into the crown jewel of the Illinois educational system. The University has world class, well-funded medical and recreational facilities. The former are underused by the student body. If you take hangovers and sexually transmitted diseases out of the equation, young people are generally healthy. At the medical school, those seeking to specialize in gerontology would be happy to have me as there are slim pickings in the potential patient pool amongst the undergraduate student body.

There’s a world class library and regular speakers and classes on every conceivable subject. There’s a music school and regular concerts. Why not enroll and get access to all those delightful benefits and student housing too? OK, so they’d put you in graduate student housing—so what? Staying at a fraternity is probably out of the question, though you never know. They might rush a sixty-year old just for the novelty of it. Free of worries about grades, my main concern would be the menus at the student cafeteria and the location of the next wine and cheese event.

There’s no reason to be lonely at a university: due to your age your fellow students will initially see you as an oddity before the crafty ones figure out that having an older friend may sometimes open doors that would otherwise be shut, especially in a country where age is a requirement to purchase alcohol. Every new class means new friends and contacts.

Don’t be afraid of showing up at any university event; by law and policy, they are open to all. There are three classes of older people commonly found on a university campus: professors, parents and boosters. People will automatically assume that you fall into one of these categories; no one will risk offense by turning you away.

Taken by the idea, my friend Roberto found that there are countries in Western Europe where tuition is free, housing is cheap, medical care is free and class instruction is given in English. Maybe Slovakia is not at the top of your education list, but it should be. “But I already have a degree,” you whine. Don’t you get it? Who cares? You can spend the next two decades sampling the educational wares of Western Europe and you won’t finish.

But having been away from it for so long, the idea of my home country—not the reality of it, the idea of it—was attractive so I looked close to what had been for many years, home.

I semi-seriously looked at real estate in Champaign; if I could find a two story building I could set up a law office on the first floor while living on the second, a nearly rent-free, or at least subsidized rental environment (it is not easy for me to hide my obsessions). I could give new meaning to the phrase “student lawyer.” For this to be successful, I would need a federal courthouse and preferably, a state appellate courthouse. With an ABA-approved law library and free Lexis available to students, a genteel appellate practice writing briefs with the occasional court appearance would be one possible pastime.

With a gut growing from all-too-frequent attendance at wine and cheese gatherings, I would discreetly encourage my classmates to take advantage of all educational opportunities open to them—especially those that offered free food. In exchange, all I would want is a heads-up on any event with a free buffet. Why be one of those seniors lining up for the early bird special, stuffing sachets of Sweet ’n Low into your purse when you can feed in style in the halls of academe—and with little or no cash outlay? Once the faculty realized that I posed no threat and was merely along for the ride of free booze and victuals they would leave me alone and treat me as just an eccentric old crank, which is fine with me.

If forced to declare a major, I would choose an impossibly difficult dead language, one that would take me years to master. I might not live so long. Nevertheless, each year I would dutifully sign up for Akkadian 101 and not let my repeated failures get me down. I would stay away from those classes where a professor might try to pass me to get rid of me. The university administration might try to discourage me by scheduling Akkadian at the ungodly hour of 8:30 in the morning, not realizing that I had no intention of attending at any hour. Class is not a realistic option so early in the morning. At 8:30 I’m dressed in a bathrobe—if expecting guests—and working on my morning coffee, sweetened with a tablespoon of Kentucky bourbon.

“Failure” would be my mantra, my shield against old age. If after repeated failures, I would simply switch to another impossibly-difficult language. My prior failures would constitute eloquent proof that a change of major was needed. If, God forbid, I were to come close to meeting the requirements for graduation and thus expulsion from this Garden of Eden, I’d quickly find a new course of study where none of my classes would qualify. Fine with me. Though realistically, studying and sitting for examinations is not on my agenda so I do not see how this could happen.

Once a quarter I’d take my Social Security check and throw a boozy “homecoming” party for older students, inviting everyone to the law office backyard where I’d set up a bbq smoker and enlist the interns who worked for me as waiters and waitresses—no empty plates allowed. I would make it known that anyone could attend, older student or not. The first few events would be sparsely attended until word got out about the free beer and bbq.

I’d hire an undergraduate band to play at the event—they’d be happy for the gig. I’d schedule around major sporting events lest parents attend, see what a cushy life I’d got going and decide to enroll themselves.

Sounds a lot better than a retirement home, Century City or Boynton Beach. Almost all American States have a university town and many charge little tuition to non-degree-seeking seniors. Some States have more than one. Slovakia remains an option. Besides Champaign, there’s Tallahassee, Florida (Go Seminoles!); Austin, Texas; Oxford, Mississippi and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. All have been on my radar.

Boulder, Colorado and the home of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale are also of interest. Carbondale has the reputation of being a “party” school. For some this would be a negative but not me. The town has the added benefit of being the seat of the federal district court for the Southern District of Illinois. It’s so far south that winters are rarely harsh, almost tropical compared to Chicago.

I’ll have to investigate it more thoroughly.