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How do I take advantage of a university near me without enrolling?
February 4, 2012 12:05 PM   Subscribe

I'm in my mid 30s, have a lot of spare time and happen to live next door to a university and I want some more structured education in my life, how do I do it? (details inside)

I dropped out of junior college over 10 years ago, but I've always been mostly an auto-didact, and in the past couple of years or so, I've been really getting into iTunes classes online -- especially higher level math and physics, and recently engineering topics like signal processing, but I'm getting to the point where I think I could take advantage of some more directed learning.

I don't won't to re-enroll in college and have 0 interest in a degree, but I do live about 5 minutes away from a large state university, and I wouldn't object to auditing classes, but I don't know how that works -- do they check for pre-requisites for that kind of thing? Do they charge full price? Is attendance mandatory? Are you expected to take exams and do homework?

Besides auditing, what are some other ways I could take advantage of a university nearby?
posted by empath to Education (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
(also personal stories about auditing classes and/or going back to school in your 30s would be welcome)
posted by empath at 12:06 PM on February 4, 2012

At my own large state university, you could walk into pretty much any large class and sit down, and nobody would ask you why you were there. I took several film history courses this way as it was a really cheap way to watch great movies. That's what "auditing" means to me. Of course, there's probably a formal process that involves paying a fee and signing up properly. Certainly you wouldn't have to take exams as an auditor - that's what auditing is all about.

If you want to take exams and do homework, though, you'll have to actually enroll. Check with your local university about whether they have enrollment options for non-degree students. They probably won't check for prerequisites, assuming that if you're willing to sign up for the class and do the work, you've probably got the chops.

Attendance is at the discretion of the professor, but if you're taking math or physics classes it almost certainly won't be required. I don't think I took a single non-humanities class in undergrad where professors took roll.
posted by troublesome at 12:21 PM on February 4, 2012

Have you tried calling this university and asking them? They probably have their own set of policies, might differ from other schools.

Other thing I could think of is if they have gym facilities you could use, but that would probably be restricted to staff and students.

I'm in my 30s, among the younger set at my workplace, but people who "go back to school" there tend toward online classes these days. Some do a reduced schedule and commute to the local university. One coworker got her Masters from a university in another state without having set foot there. There's plenty of free offerings from big name schools online now but you don't get credit.

Whichever works best for you!
posted by Seboshin at 12:23 PM on February 4, 2012

Auditing seems like a nice way to take advantage of the university. First see what is the university policy about attending classes. I know that public universities mostly allow auditing lectures, but do not allow attending seminars or practicums. You can also check out the courses you are interested in and then ask individual professors if they would allow you to sit in their class.
Basically, if you are just auditing classes, no work is expected of you. I don't even think you should get charged for anything either.
Getting some extra education is always good, and I think it is even more fun to take classes when you know that your inner motivation is the only thing why you are there, rather than having it as an obligation.

Good luck!
posted by arta at 12:25 PM on February 4, 2012

Just about any university is going to have events (lectures, performances, etc.) and exhibits (museums, art displays, etc.) open to the public.
posted by oceano at 12:29 PM on February 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Many universities have a program (concurrent enrollment, open enrollment, open campus, and other names) that allows non-enrolled students to take regular classes, with or without credit. You pay tuition per class/credit, and possibly some other fees. You'll be dead last on the list in case the class fills up.

For the most part, universities don't allow "unofficial" auditing, but I don't know what happens if you're caught. Official unenrolled audits usually go through the program above.
posted by WasabiFlux at 12:49 PM on February 4, 2012

Re going back to school: I flunked out on my first attempt at university, at age 18 or so, and returned at 28 (to a local community college for a year, then a transfer to the local university with 30,000 students), got a BSc in math, and am now, at 36, in grad school working on a PhD. There was some social weirdness from being about 50% older than the other students. Learning was much easier the second time around — I was better motivated, better prepared (because I'd been reading a bit on my own while out of school), had better perspective, was more thoughtful about what I was doing and how well it was working... just generally a better student. (Every professor I know who has had so-called mature students reports that this is typical.) I'm not sure what else to tell you about the experience. Do you have any particular concerns in mind?

Re auditing: At my university, there's auditing and then there's auditing. The actual regulations of the university include provisions for students to audit courses; it costs money, though somewhat less than taking the course for credit; you get no grade but the course appears on your transcript; probably you don't get assignments marked and such; maybe they'll care about prerequisites, I'm not sure. And then there's auditing under the table, where you just sit in on the lectures; if it's a small enough class that the instructor will notice your presence, then I'd suggest informally asking the professor's permission. In my experience they don't mind, as long as you're not expecting them to do any additional work for you. You might want to inquire about their expectations on participation (for students generally, and for you in particular).

Re attendance: In my experience, attendance has been completely up to the student. Some professors will try to set things up to encourage attendance (e.g., giving marks for participation, or requiring homework to be handed in at the start of the lecture), but I've never seen one check attendance, or harangue students about attending.

Re other uses: Many universities have good libraries.
posted by stebulus at 1:10 PM on February 4, 2012

VCU has a Friends of the Library program - donate $50 a year and you get borrowing privileges at the Cabell Library. They have a much better collection than the city library, which is in a pretty tragic state.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 1:39 PM on February 4, 2012


Yes, check with the school; see if they have a community outreach office or something. I know of one Ivy League school where there was an official program where community members pay like $50 and audit classes -- i.e. professors are actively encouraged to let these 'outsiders' sit in.

Also, do just check with individual professors. In large lecture classes, odds are roughly 98% that the professor will not care if you sit in on his/her lectures. (Small seminars are a different story. Midsized classes will probably go on the side of large lectures, though.)

Do note the norms though:
-- you do not do tests/papers/homework.
-- You do not talk in class.
-- You do not monopolize the professor after class.
I.e., in an unofficial audit situation (and in the official program I described above) it is centrally important that
-- you do not make more work for the prof, and
-- that you recognize that paying degree students have miles of priority over you for the prof's attention.

I've had auditors give me call gifts at the end of the term -- a bottle of wine, that kind of thing -- and I always really enjoyed that. There's something especially nice about being appreciated by an *adult* as opposed to a 19 year old.

Have fun!
posted by kestrel251 at 3:06 PM on February 4, 2012

*small* gifts.
posted by kestrel251 at 3:07 PM on February 4, 2012

So I can just email professors of classes I'm interested in and ask if they'll let me sit in?
posted by empath at 3:08 PM on February 4, 2012

Yes, absolutely. Again, your safest bet is classes with >50 students. And it might be nice to be clear in the email that you aren't expecting to turn in work, or get any one-on-one time with the prof. Seriously, as long as you sound like a sane, polite person, the prof is extremely likely to let you sit in.
posted by kestrel251 at 4:31 PM on February 4, 2012

I went to the large state University you live next door to in the nineties. They have a large percentage of older students, so you won't feel out of place. Being in the middle of an urban area, they're next door to a lot of people, and they have a lot people doing what you're doing.

To the best of my recollection you have the option of auditing classes or signing up as a "non-degree seeking student". The first gives you fairly limited selection of classes, the second lets you take any classes not restricted to majors, but you have to pay full price and get graded. (I may be getting mixed up about this, though.)

Go to the admissions office and ask them about it, and study the catalog to see what your options are. (I don't remember enough to be helpful, and policies I do remember may have changed.)

When I was there, I worked for the the University and got to take advantage of their benefits package which included free classes, up to certain number of credits, as long as you passed them and met the prerequisites. Eventually I got serious about it and got a degree (and I had to quit work to do that).

The kinds of classes you want to take seem a bit trickier to get into. They're probably not open to non-majors, and you probably don't have the prereqs for them. The strategy here is probably to take some classes in areas you're interested in, and then ask professors you like about the possibility of getting into classes you want to take.

If you're a good student, and are obviously interested in and care about the subject, some professors will bend the rules and pull strings for you to get into classes you're not really supposed to be taking. Sometimes they'll let you sit in on a class you can't afford to pay for, if they're teaching it. Sometimes they'll sign overrides to get you into classes you don't have the prerequisites for. They can also tell you frankly if there's no way that's going to happen. To do that though, you have to know people, and they have to know you. So take some classes you can get into first, and then start talking to your professors. If you take a couple classes over a year or so you'll probably find a least one or two professors you can talk to.

In my experience the really hard-ass professors that regular undergrads hate are often the best people to approach about stuff like this. Generally, these are people who really care about their subject, and if they realize you actually fucking care about it, they can make things happen for you.
posted by nangar at 4:46 PM on February 4, 2012

In my experience, the only reason to pay for a university course is to get a shiny piece of paper at the end. When you pay a university for such a piece of paper, you are getting the university to endorse your claim to be educated. That endorsement is important for a lot of things. But if all you want is to get an education, then paying is silly. Talk to professors and sit in courses that you like. Observe the rules that kestrel mentioned: don't turn in homework, sit for exams, dominate in-class discussion, or pester the professor too much. Otherwise, be as interested and involved as you can. If it becomes too much of a bother, most professors will tell you so. (Er, at least I would, anyway.)

Good luck!
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 5:25 PM on February 4, 2012

Data point: I'm attending grad school at a university where my (in-his-30s) husband is an undergraduate.

At our school, you may "audit" a class, but here it means you don't have to take tests or do graded assignments and you don't get any credit, but YOU PAY THE REGULAR FULL CLASS FEE. Which I think is stupid and completely ridiculous, but that is their policy. (Personally, I was *shocked* to learn this.)

I do think you could probably arrange your own thing with some professors and just go listen in or whatever, but that's a different thing from "officially" auditing where the university knows what you are doing.
posted by pupstocks at 6:29 PM on February 4, 2012

I am a professor at a State University and I would have to say "NO" if you asked to audit my class unofficially because there is literally no seat for you in the classroom. Many courses are fully subscribed these days, particularly at Public Universities, because of budget cuts and paying students, especially freshmen, have a hard time getting into the classes they need because of seat limitations. So unless the class in question is in a large lecture hall that is not at capacity you may have this problem.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 7:15 AM on February 5, 2012

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