Yes, You Can Go Back…To School

There’s a familiar saying: “Youth is wasted on the young.” I propose a slight twist: “College is wasted on the young.”

Don’t get me wrong . . . you have to be pretty young to survive, much less enjoy, the late nights, the parties, the hormones. What I’m talking about are the courses. Just imagine: a course catalog as thick as your local telephone directory (yes, I realize that both are more often found online now, but stay with me). For the not- inconsiderable cost of admission, you can dip your toes into history, culture, life sciences, foreign languages, really anything you can think of. 

And, it’s a shame that what interested you at twenty may not be what interests you at forty or fifty.

For example, my daughter, a recent graduate of the Covid class of 2020 (and that’s a story for another time), pursued two rigorous majors and a minor. It wasn’t until her last semester senior year that she found time for a women’s studies elective. It turned out to be her favorite class. (Yes, I’m very proud and a little verklempt.)

With her experience in mind, I recently ran an informal poll on Facebook and LinkedIn. “What one course did you not take in college, but wish you did?” More than twenty people responded. Art directors wished they had taken creative writing classes. Writers wished they had taken graphic design. Anthropology, public policy, calculus, statistics, and foreign languages were all mentioned. One web designer I often work with would go back and become a veterinarian. And a lawyer I know expressed a desire to study acting. Myself, I wish I had taken comparative religion. My university had a world-class religion department but — like my daughter — I had a double major and too many other requirements.

This leads me to what might be seen as a silver lining to our current situation.

In response to the Coronavirus pandemic, many of us are working from or staying at home these days. If, like me, you’ve exhausted your options on Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, take a few minutes to ponder the question I asked. Then, take a look at some of the — free — courses available online. 

Here are several sites to get you started . . .


Founded in 2012 by Harvard and MIT, edX delivers 2,800 free courses from more than 120 colleges and universities to 25 million learners. Their mission is to “Increase access to high-quality education for everyone, everywhere.” On their user-friendly website, you can search by category (Humanities, Engineering, Data Science, Language . . .) or drill down into specific topics, like Shakespeare, Entrepreneurship, or Mandarin. edX will tell you which courses are most popular and other subjects that might interest you. 


Like edX, Coursera offers free classes from a wide variety of universities. It also delivers courses from major businesses like Google, Amazon, and Intel. There are options for individual learners as well as organizations, and fee-based certificate programs and online degrees. On the business side, a recent survey found that 87 percent of people learning for professional development report career benefits like getting a promotion, a raise, or starting a new career.


FutureLearn offers academic courses from a global collection of schools, including the University of Auckland, Complutense University of Madrid, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, and the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites. They also provide courses that focus on practical, everyday skills, such as job interviewing, making (and sticking to) budgets, online research, and critical thinking.


Based in the U.K., OpenLearn is a free learning platform. Content is delivered by The Open University as part of its “Royal Charter commitment to support the wellbeing of the community.” Since its founding in 2006, OpenLearn has attracted nearly 75 million learners. Search for courses — ranging from one to 24 hours in length — in Education Development; Health, Sports, & Psychology; Money & Business; Languages; History & The Arts; and more.

Other University-Based Sites

Individual schools offer online learning experiences as well. In most cases, there’s a mix of fee-based certificate and free non-credit options. Some of the best include: 

MIT OpenCourseWare

Carnegie Mellon OpenLearning

Stanford Online

Harvard Online 

Duke Online

Open Yale Courses 


If your focus is professional development rather than academia, you can enjoy free trials at Skillsoft and LinkedIn Learning.

With any of these platforms, once you have a specific topic in mind, chances are you’ll find an embarrassment of riches. Searching on edX, I found 35 different courses on religion, from “Religion, Conflict and Peace” and “Religious Literacy: Traditions and Scriptures” (both HarvardX) to “Myths, Rituals, and Cosmos” (Seoul National University) and “Religion and Hip Hop Culture” (RiceX).

Who knew that religion influenced hip hop culture? Not me. But, that’s the beauty of college — whether it’s four years on an ivy-clad campus in your teens and twenties, or making the most of being quarantined a couple of decades later — you don’t know what you don’t know. 

And then you learn something new.

Thomas Wolfe wrote, “You can’t go home again.” But I prefer the perspective of C.S. Lewis: “You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.”


Join the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  • Alison May 19, 2020 at 9:09 am

    What an inspirational article to read this morning. Thank you. Maybe with a looming gap year for many college bound kids they will delve into the wealth of college classes offered because it is an abundance of riches! How lucky for us adult students to have the resources you listed.