Still Want to Learn? — 8 Places You Can Study for Free

As someone who didn’t get a master’s degree until age 53, I am a firm believer in lifelong learning. Granted, going back to school after decades away means bumping up against a relearning curve, but all those study skills thought forgotten have a way of reappearing and working in tandem with mature thought systems and a refined work ethic. Plus, lifelong learning doesn’t have to mean working toward a new degree, although mine resulted in a new career and international options. It might be a single course, a skills-based instruction program, or a series of classes in a topic that fascinates. Whichever you choose, there is a chance you can get those extra layers of learning at little or no cost.

1. STATE COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES — Throughout the US, states offer reduce or tuition-free programs to seniors. The definition for this term may vary slightly so check on the requirements in your state. In some places, you must be 60 years old. In others, they require that the prospective student be “of age to receive full Social Security benefits”. Here are two examples:

a. California — California State Universities

  • Eligible — CA Residents 60 Years of Age or “older taking state supported classes (not through extended education) at the CSU.”
  • Space — Discretionary — based on available space and other factors.
  • Fees Waived:
    Tuition and Application Fee
    Student Body Center Fee (reduced to $1)
    Health Facilities Fee (reduced to $1)
    Health Services Fee
    IRA Fee

b. Massachusetts — Commonwealth of Massachusetts public colleges and Universities — Categorical Tuition Waiver

  • Eligible — Persons over the age of 60 who meet certain criteria, including residence, citizenship, and enrollment in three courses.
  • Amount — Full tuition waiver

2. OVERSEAS UNIVERSITIES — If studying abroad has been a dream, consider this a magic wand. Many international universities offer free tuition, even for international students. If you can afford daily expenses, coursework in an exotic locale is possible. Other countries, not mentioned here, may have very reduced tuition costs for international students. Always be sure to check the current situation, but here are some examples:

a. Norway — No tuition is charged at state schools for anyone and the country is known for the high quality of education, including those programs taught in English. One drawback is the cost of living, because Norway is not cheap.

b. Poland — So, just by way of comparison — Poland charges non-EU students 2000 Euro per year, which is practically nothing and it is an inexpensive place to live. Here, too, there are select programs taught in English.

3. THE UNITED STATES PEACE CORPS — The United States Peace Corps provides an opportunity to learn and to serve, and it lives up to its slogan, “The toughest job you will ever love.” As an RPCV — Returned Peace Corp Volunteer — I can attest to the transformational nature of a two-year tour in the corps. Once my daughter was grown and off to college, I began the process for entry into the Peace Corps, eventually wading through two inches of paperwork, medical exams, recommendations, and interviews to get the final approval and a ticket to Morocco. In answer to the oft-heard question, “Aren’t I too old for the Peace Corps?” the answer is “No.”

In the Peace Corps, you will learn a language, be instructed in local culture and traditions, and find out how to negotiate a new country and job. The training and the two years spent in-country will also call on your ability to manage yourself, your time, and strange circumstances. By the end, a repertoire of new skill sets will leave you prepared for all life’s challenges.

4. TED TALKS ON MULTIPLE TOPICS — I have been a fan of TED (Technology, Education, and Design) for many years, having used them in the classroom and for my own edification. While many people have heard of TED and its locally-driven counterpart, TEDx, they may not know that the archives of TED talks are a veritable university catalogue of diversely explored topics. Interested in alternative energy? There are at least 13 talks on this subject. Perhaps, like me, you are fascinated by how the brain works. No problem. The archive has at least fifteen talks ready to expand anyone’s knowledge about that spongy yellow blob resting between our ears. Slip on your headphones and explore the universe that is TED.

5. FREE COURSES AND FIRST COURSES ON YOUTUBE — A caveat — many YouTube courses are fee-based, but there are others that are absolutely free as well as options that offer a free “beginning” courses. In all these cases, a lifelong student can explore before buying or simply immerse himself in something new and different. To do your own search, simple enter “free course on youtube” or something similar and see what pops up. Aiming for variety, interest, and seemingly legitimate courses, here are a few samples:

a. Yale University — Introduction to Psychology with Paul Bloom — This MOOC (Massive Open On-Line Course) consists of 20 lectures.

b. Yale University — Evolution and Medicine with Steven Stearns — In this 65 part course from 2015, the professor breaks down a complex topic into bite-sized pieces.

c. TastyTuts — Complete Beginner’s Guide to Adobe Illustrator — Okay, you have decided to raise your tech profile. This 20-episode course will have you conjuring astonishing graphics.

d. Learn — Drawing Course Beginner to Advanced — For someone who can do a recognizable stick figure, this is must. The young instructor has a clear speaking style and ample knowledge. Maybe there is hope for me, yet.

e. Internetus — English-Italian — Free Course 100 Lessons — This is not the most sophisticated language course I have heard, but it is comprehensive, and, by keeping track of the minute/seconds, the student can return to specific sections for practice and review.

6. PODCASTS THAT WILL BLOW YOUR MIND — A late-comer to podcasts, I began listening only about three years ago. Since then, I have had more Ah Ha moments than I do gray hairs, which says a lot more than you can tell by just looking. Using the tool of podcasts, the careful listener can learn about issues, problems, and discoveries that broaden the mind and extend understanding. My Adventures with Podcasts started out with Srini Rao’s Unmistakable Creative, a podcast of 600 interviews with movers, shakers, and thinkers you may never have heard about but who are having an impact. As the website says, “This is a place for instigators, rebels, and people with a pathological inability to accept the status quo.”

Since then, a bouquet of talented speakers have launched podcasts. Here are several that soar brilliantly above the crowd:

a. Revisionist History — I have a crush on Malcolm Gladwell. He thinks outside the box and acts as a guide so that we can revisit the past and discover something entirely new.

b. This American Life — Like Unmistakable Creative, This American Life has an archive that will keep you listening for years. One of my favorites is a story about an Iraqi translator who sought refuge in Norway after being threatened in Iraq due to his work with Americans. Another episode is actually a mini-musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda.

c. Radiolab — Like all of the podcasts listed, Radiolab, brilliantly hosted by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, is well-researched, creatively produced and thoroughly engaging. Whenever a “road trip” is in the offing, I line up a half-dozen missed episodes to keep my brain ticking as the boring miles and/or back-up traffic along I-5 threaten narcolepsy.

7. ONLINE CONSOLIDATOR — — This website is a compendium hundreds of free courses sourced from all over the country and the world. The University of Queensland, for example, offers a course entitled Design Thinking and Creativity for Innovation. The course runs for 10 weeks with an expected weekly effort level at 8–10 hours. Upon completion with this course and many others on, the student can get a certificate for $99 or less. Other courses include:

a. Academic and Business Writing

b. John Milton — Paradise Lost

c. Citizen Politics in America: Public Opinion, Elections, Interest Groups, and the Media.

8. KHAN ACADEMY — Bolstered by the support of the Gates Foundation, the Khan Academy, which grew out of Salman Khan’s desire to support his cousins in their more difficult academic subjects, is now a treasure house of specific, scaffolded instruction. Though focused on math and sciences, there are also detailed lessons in the areas of computing, arts and humanities and test prep. If there is an area where you may feel a lingering weakness, the Khan Academy will not only provide instruction, but it will also keep your secret. If one of those is a persistent inability to manage money, Khan even has a Personal Finance course.

As evidenced by the assorted sources above, there are an unlimited number of locations and methods for continuing to learn not matter age or circumstance. The time is now and the place is…anywhere you like.

Writer, ESL instructor, editor, traveler, seasonal ex-pat— my life is both an intentional and serendipitous circumstance. Motto — “Buy the ticket, and go!”

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