This Funder Bankrolls Campus Programs to Help Older Adults Become Lifelong Learners

California businessman Bernard Osher is a strong advocate for higher education and the arts, and for more than 35 years has supported both through the foundation that bears his name. In 2000, the Bernard Osher Foundation took a long look at education programs geared toward older adults and didn't like what it saw. So the foundation made improving these programs a central part of its mission.

Traditional continuing education programs offered at many colleges and universities attract students of all ages, offering them the opportunity to take courses to complete unfinished degrees or acquire new skills that enable them to change careers or advance in their existing ones. This approach to continuing education does not, however, best serve the needs of adults 50 and older, many of whom are interested in the joy of learning without the pressures of grades and examinations. Thus, the idea of Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes was born.

Fortunately, the funder had two examples of such institutes from which to learn what works best in providing lifelong learning opportunities for older adults: One at the University of San Francisco and one at the University of Southern Maine's Senior College program. Osher made its first grant in 2001 to the University of Southern Maine, which changed the name of its Senior College to Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. The university now houses a resource center for all Osher institutes.

Over a decade after that first grant, there are more than 100 Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes at colleges and universities across the country, with at least one in each of the 50 states. The programs vary, but share the following characteristics: non-credit courses developed with older adults in mind, university connection and support, a sound organizational structure, and a diverse array of intellectually stimulating courses.

Most recently, Dartmouth College joined the network of Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes, receiving $2 million from the Bernard Osher Foundation to endow the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Dartmouth College. Dartmouth's lifelong learning center began its relationship with Osher two years ago, receiving a $100,000 operating grant. Now the institute has joined Osher's network of Lifelong Learning Institutes.

Helping older adults access the joy of learning in a setting designed to meet their educational interests and needs is an area on which not many funders have focused. Institutions of higher education operating such programs and looking for additional support should look into the Osher Foundation.