RETIRED REAL ESTATE BROKER Larry Davidson and his wife, Ellie, a former college professor, can’t get enough of the courses available at the Lifelong Learning Academy (LLA) at USF Sarasota-Manatee. This summer they took a course on Mondays called “Little Green Men: What Will We Find in Space?” On Tuesday mornings they attended a travel adventure class with photos and a lively description of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat temples and Vietnam’s architecture. After a quick break in the USFSM cafeteria, they spent the afternoon listening to a lecture on Alfred Hitchcock movies and viewing scenes from some of his films.

“We feel the courses expand our knowledge,” says Davidson, who says he is 82 but feels more like 49. He describes the faculty as “fantastic.” What’s more, he says, “there’s no homework.”

BREAKING RECORDS

The Davidsons are among the 2,317 students who have helped transform the academy into the third-largest post-secondary educational institution in Sarasota-Manatee. The biggest is State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota, with 27,000 students. Next is USFSM with 2,368 students, just a handful more than at LLA. “We keep breaking records,” says LLA executive director Janna Overstreet.

The academy’s success is reflected in its annual budget, which has soared from $222,000 in FY 2012 to $360,000 in 2014; summer registration is up 25 percent over last year.

WHAT IT COSTS

Overstreet says the budget consists of contributions from 282 donors and registration fees. Students pay $75 for each course. An annual membership is $65 and entitles the student to a 10 percent tuition discount after registering for the first course. The courses are open to anyone, regardless of age, but nearly all of the participants are seniors. Since many students take more than one course, LLA had about 5,400 registrations as of mid-2014.

LOOKING FOR A HOME

Most of the academy’s 274 courses are presented in classrooms at the USFSM campus, but some are taught at SCF, Westminster Towers & Shores in Bradenton, and Kobernick-Anchin-Benderson community in Sarasota. The two Anna Maria Island locations are the community center and The Studio at Gulf and Pine.

“We would like a permanent home on the USFSM campus,” Overstreet says.

“Right now we rent space from them, but because we have grown and they have grown, we have a real crunch for space. We need to build ourselves a big building.”

ECONOMIC IMPACT

Overstreet also says the academy has become an economic plus for the region’s economy.

“We are an attraction, just like the arts and the culture and the beaches. Some of our students actually plan their time here based on our course schedules,” she says. “Go to YouTube, type Lifelong Learning Sarasota, and you will see about 30 people talking about their experience.”

In addition to spending time in LLA classes, students spend money. “They are eating at restaurants near the campus and at the university restaurant,” Overstreet says. “We have a movie class packed with 20 to 30 students and they are going to the movies every week. To park on the USFSM campus they have to buy a $19 parking sticker each semester and that has helped to practically pave the parking lot. There are many ways in which this spending has tumbled into the community and become an economic driver.”

"New retirees are not going to be satisfied to lie on the beach and read books for 30 years."

RETIREE MARKET

LLA has 224 instructors who teach a wide variety of courses. Among the most popular are the “gadget classes,” where students learn how to use and get the most from their iPads and iPhones. History is another favorite. “We had 54 people enrolled for a summer course on the Dead Sea Scrolls and a waiting list of others who wanted in; we have never before had a summer course with a waiting list,” Overstreet says.

The popularity of lifelong learning is sure to grow with the aging of the population, she says. “The new retirees are in their 60s and 70s so they have 20 to 30 years of retirement ahead of them. They are not going to be satisfied to lie on the beach and read books for 30 years. They have been active professionals and active in their community, and they want to stretch their minds and meet new people in their retirement years.”

The ideal vehicle for this is LLA, she says.  People sign up for courses and begin socializing with classmates.  “They form groups on their own—history groups, philosophy groups. They go to dinner together. They make plans to take trips together. It is really an integral part of their lives.”

Al Goldis, who worked 40 years in major league baseball for five different clubs, teaches a popular course on the business of baseball. He has been impressed by the relationships that develop in the classroom among people from all walks of life, all different religions and backgrounds, but with one commonality. “They all want to learn and they learn from each other,” he says. “It is a hell of a place.”

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