If you were to line up the entire University of Wisconsin–Madison student population by age, the vast majority would be undergrads between 18 and 22, followed by graduate students in their mid to late twenties. After that, the age distribution would become a lot less concentrated: an occasional 30-year-old returning to school after serving in the military, a few 40-year-olds working toward a degree they didn’t have the chance to attain when they were younger.

Jen Roth: ‘Classes I’ve taken over the past four years have become a part of me.’ (Photo by Parker Schorr)

At the very end of the line would be a group of students old enough to be grandparents of the freshmen. Nevertheless, they’re often more excited to learn than anyone on campus.

These students are called senior guest auditors, and they can attend a wide range of lectures at University of Wisconsin System schools for free due to a state mandate, as long as they’re Wisconsin residents and at least 60 years old.

Jim and Eunice Hecker, both 90, have taken classes every semester at UW–Madison for decades. But the husband and wife duo rarely take classes together because their interests don’t overlap. Jim likes learning about geography, nature, and history, while Eunice prefers anthropology, science, and ethics.

Like a typical student, Eunice hops off the city bus carrying a backpack with notebooks and pencils.  Jim parks at Eagle Heights and takes the 80 bus.

“I want [students] to see that learning goes on forever,” Eunice said.

“I go in, I listen, and I enjoy, and then forget as soon as I leave the room,” Jim joked, contrasting his learning style with his wife’s. “I couldn’t pass the tests of the courses I’ve taken.”

Senior guest auditors don’t take tests, do homework, or participate in discussions like paying students do. They can’t attain a degree, and there are some restrictions on the types of classes they can take. No high-participation courses like language or recreation, for example. But the vast majority of the course catalog is fair game.

‘Like a kid in a candy store’

Jen Roth, 67, said the release of a new course list is a big event in her life now.

“It’s such a thrill the first time you look at the course catalog for the coming semester,” she said. “I’m like a kid in a candy store.”

Jim and Eunice Hecker, both 90, have taken classes every semester at UW–Madison for decades.

Roth took a full course load one semester—five classes, 18 credits—but that was before she had four grandchildren to take care of. Now, she takes a more manageable schedule. Last semester she audited three classes: a course on existentialism, a bioethics course dealing with ethics issues in health care, and an art in history course focused on propaganda in 20th century Western Europe.

“Each one I get so much out of,” Roth said. “In general, I would say [my favorite] is whatever I’m taking right now. Classes I’ve taken over the past four years have become a part of me.”

All walks of life

The program began in 1973 when the Board of Regents approved a policy of cost-free auditing for seniors. That winter, only four seniors enrolled.

But because the initial policy didn’t require auditors to be Wisconsin residents, soon seniors from Florida and New York would fly in and overwhelm classrooms. For this reason, the Board of Regents ended the free policy and started making seniors pay in 1991.

In 2000, the Wisconsin State Legislature instituted its own mandate requiring UW System schools to allow seniors to audit classes for free. Since then, the number of auditors has exploded. In the fall of 2000, 112 seniors were enrolled. This semester, 760 were enrolled—and the number is growing by roughly 100 each year.

Anne Niendorf, associate student services coordinator at UW’s Adult Career and Special Student Services, is the point of contact for senior guest auditors and assists them with admission, course selection, and enrollment. She said the program has been tremendously successful and inclusive.

anne niendorf

“Senior guest auditors come from all walks of life,” says coordinator Anne Niendorf. ‘It could be people who don’t have a degree all the way up to people who have their PhD.’

“[Auditors come] from all walks of life,” she said. “It could be people who don’t have a degree all the way up to people who have their PhD.”

‘My escape from reality’

Ray McCool, 88, has audited classes for 17 years, almost entirely within the Department of History. This semester he took a class on the history of the Holocaust, a period he’s old enough to remember. He was 15 when the war ended.

“I see a lot of people my age kind of fade away,” said McCool, who has a doctoral degree. “Maybe there are physical problems. I certainly recognize that, but I thought, ‘I’m not going to do it that way.’”

John Terry Jr., 62, never went to college. He was an alcoholic diagnosed with mental illness, and was homeless for several years. He said he wasted his life when he was younger.

For the past few years, Terry has audited one course each semester, from Roman architecture to contemporary politics. His new kick is art history.

“There’s a lot of sadness in the world, a lot of anger in the world,” he said. “These art classes are my escape from reality.”

Terry now volunteers at homeless shelters like Porchlight and the Beacon, where he sometimes talks with the homeless about what he’s learned in class.

“Just because you’re homeless does not mean you’re a dummy,” he said. “They ask me questions and I give them answers. It makes them feel like they’re not homeless for that fleeting moment.”

Jen Roth graduated from college, but she says she misconstrued its purpose.

“When I was in college, I didn’t think about it as, ‘I’m here to learn about what there is to be learned.’ I thought of it as a way to gain credits toward getting a degree. I couldn’t wait to get on with my real life. Now I can be the student I wish I could have been back then.”

To learn more about the senior guest auditor program, see the program webpage or contact Anne Niendorf at anne.niendorf@wisc.edu, 608-265-5120.

Pictured above: Senior guest auditor Ray McCool.