“I didn’t come home having solved all my personal questions, but I did come home inspired,” Blaney, who lives in Hudson, Mass., told Yahoo Finance.

The academy is one of a growing number of educational programs that have sprung up in the past few years from Notre Dame to the Modern Elder Academy to the University of Colorado designed to attract adult learners like Blaney seeking new chapters and personal growth.

Driving the trend: baby boomers retiring and looking for purposeful pivots. Some 10,000 Americans are turning 65 every day; the youngest boomers will turn 65 in 2029. That’s a lot of potential customers for such programs.

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The beauty of it is that new research shows taking adult education courses and finding purpose are key ingredients for maintaining and even increasing mental acuity as we age.

Class at Modern Elder Academy, Baja, Mexico
Say no to brain drain: a class at Modern Elder Academy, Baja, Mexico (Photo Credit: Cliff Hackel)

Backpacks and books

We’re not talking about masters or degree programs, but rather classes and fellowships for students — those ranging in age from 50 to 75 — many of which have been launched at top universities through academic or year-long programs in recent years.

Campus-oriented fellowships, where students audit classes, attend lectures, and work on projects with graduate and undergraduate students, include the Stanford Distinguished Careers Institute, Harvard’s Advanced Leadership Initiative, the University of Notre Dame’s Inspired Leadership Initiative, and the University of Texas at Austin, which offers the Tower Fellows Program.

This fall, the Leadership and Society Initiative (LSI) will launch at the University of Chicago. The University of St Gallen in Switzerland will open its NEXT program in June. And the University of Oxford’s six-month Next Horizons program will open its classrooms next year.

Meanwhile, the University of Colorado-Denver launched its Change Makers program, a semester-long course, earlier this year.

“The idea is to have a framework for really valuing what you’ve done, the wisdom of your experience, and using that to discern what you want to do,” said Anne Button, the founding director. “Most of our fellows are retired or on the cusp and are looking to make a social impact.”

That’s the case for Ellen Dumm, 68, who enrolled after a career in Colorado politics and public relations.

“I was looking at what’s next, but I couldn’t find anything substantial and meaningful that I thought fit me,” she told Yahoo Finance. “I’ve seen so many people just retire and not really have a plan other than the financial plan.”

Thomas Schreier Jr., director, Inspired Leadership Initiative at the University of Notre Dame
Class action: Thomas Schreier Jr., director of the Inspired Leadership Initiative at the University of Notre Dame speaking to students. (Photo Credit: Inspired Leadership Initiative)

‘Long-term improvements’ in cognitive functions

The uptick in learning opportunities coincides with a core aging issue. A recent study published in the journal Aging and Mental Health shows that classroom learning for older adults makes brains sharper.

“Learning real-world skills can lead to long-term improvements in cognition during older adulthood,” said Rachel Wu, the lead researcher and an associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside.

One year after they learned new skills at the Riverside campus, the students who participated in the research — all over age 60 — tested higher for certain cognitive tasks than prior to the learning regimen, Wu said.

She added: What’s “equally important is that when you’re learning new skills, it makes you more resilient in a changing world.”

And it’s not just learning per se — but that the process itself provides a reason to get up in the morning that can potentially stave off a decline in cognition.

“There’s evidence that purpose in life provides a sort of buffer against Alzheimer’s disease pathology in the brain,” Christopher Stewart, director of adult clinical neuropsychology services at Indiana University School of Medicine, told Yahoo Finance. “By continuing to challenge yourself to personal growth and seeking purpose, you’re improving mental wellness.”

That sentiment is backed up by a new study from the Yale School of Public Health of 1,716 participants aged 65 and above with mild cognitive impairment. It found folks who have positive beliefs about aging are 30% more likely to regain normal cognitive function than those who are more pessimistic.

Modern Elder Academy, Baja, Mexico
Change agents? At Modern Elder Academy, students take walks on the beach, whale watch—and along the way the faculty presses them articulate goals and commitments to adjustments they will take on to make changes in their life. (Photo credit: Cliff Hackel)

At the Modern Elder Academy, in fact, purpose is the spine of the classroom discussions, which can segue from how to shed an identity that no longer works for you to crafting an encore career or launching a business.

Since the school launched in 2019, more than 3,500 people from 40 countries and 26 regional chapters around the world have attended the workshops. In fact, the demand has been so strong that another campus will open in Santa Fe, New Mexico, next year.

“We call ourselves a ‘midlife wisdom school’ because we help mid-lifers cultivate, harvest, and repurpose their wisdom,” said Chip Conley, the founder of Modern Elder Academy.

The catalyst of intergenerational classrooms

The notion of a second verse is one boomers have embraced.

“Not much more than a generation ago when people reached traditional retirement sometime in their late 50s or early 60s, they didn’t have a reasonable expectation of a long period of time where they would mentally and physically be able to have a next act,” Thomas Schreier Jr., the founding director of the Inspired Leadership Initiative at the University of Notre Dame, told Yahoo Finance.

“And that’s changed dramatically,” he added. “The intergenerational aspect of many of the on-campus fellow programs is often the special sauce. The fellows in our program generally range from their 40s to early 80s and to interact in a classroom setting, as well as just in general campus settings, with the undergraduate population, is super powerful.”

“They both learn from each other in remarkable ways and it creates energy,” Schreier added.

After Phil White, 62, retired from his three-decade career in law, he applied to Notre Dame’s Inspired Leadership program. Part of the excitement was simply that he had never had a campus experience. He worked his way through undergraduate and law schools taking classes in between jobs.

“This was finally my time to focus on things that felt meaningful to me and design a life that was going to be more fulfilling,” he said. “The program helped me realize that where I am is on a journey, and it’ll keep evolving.”

The cost?

The price of purpose is not cheap, though financial aid or stipends are available.

The programs at Stanford and Harvard can run over $70,000 for an academic year. The annual fee for the fifth cohort at Notre Dame’s Advanced Leadership Initiative that kicks off in August will be $58,000. The LSI Fellowship has an annual fee that is consistent with the cost of a year of study at the University of Chicago — $75,000.

Shorter, less academic programs are more affordable.

MEA tuition, for example, ranges from $4,000 to $5,500, all inclusive for a week. Its online programs are priced at anywhere from $750 to $1,250. Change Makers has a tuition of $3,200 for the semester. Tuition at the University of Connecticut’s Encore!Connecticut — geared to helping corporate and public sector professionals, mostly 50 and older, transition to management opportunities in the nonprofit sector — clocks in at $2,950.

Modern Elder Academy, Chip Conley
Life adjuster: Modern Elder Academy founder Chip Conley (r) in action (Photo courtesy of MEA)

But before you get too blue about the price tags, there are a number of public colleges offering free or reduced tuition for both audited and credit courses for older students.

The University of Virginia, for instance, offers classes with tuition and certain fees waived for persons 60 and older who have lived in Virginia for at least one year. Other options to find classes include adult education centers, local libraries, and community colleges.

You can check out Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs. At American University in Washington, D.C., for instance, the tuition for the Institute is $300 for the fall semester, or $550 for fall and spring semesters combined.

Virtual learning platforms are also popping up.

Since it launched a little over three years ago, GetSetUp, a virtual interactive education platform aimed at those over 50, has grown to more than 4.6 million users around the world. The monthly subscription is roughly $20 a month, but there are partnerships with state and local governments around the country that sponsor the classes for free to residents as well as through health plans that offer classes at no additional charge to members. Classes span the gamut from writing a simple business plan to how to set up your profile on LinkedIn to understanding Medicare.

“Until now, higher education hasn’t rolled out the welcome mat to older adults and especially older workers who want to extend their careers with additional schooling,” Chris Farrell, author of “Unretirement” and “Purpose and a Paycheck,” told Yahoo Finance.

“But,” he added, “change is coming”

Senior Columnist

Kerry is a Senior Reporter and Columnist at Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter @kerryhannon.

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