Henniker, N.H. — Last year over 40,000 Americans, all over the age of 60, shared a traveling and learning experience that was once largely confined to people young enough to be their grandchildren. They spent their vacations going back to school.
What made them choose a classroom over a resort or motor coach tour was Elderhostel, an organization that offers week-long learning vacations for older citizens at more than 500 colleges and universities in North America and Great Britain. Participants live in college dorms, attend classes especially tailored for the program, have the opportunity to explore the area near campus, and, to judge from the way enrollment has skyrocketed during the eight years of Elderhostel's existence, spend vacations that are stimulating as well as fun.
That was certainly the consensus among the 35 participants who spent a week last October enjoying campus life and spectacular fall foliage at New England College in Henniker, N.H. Between discovering the charms of nearby villages and state parks the Elderhostelers attended lectures on such diverse subjects as apartheid in South Africa and Shaker music.
For some it was the first time in decades that they had been inside a classroom or strolled through a college campus, but for most it had been only a few months since the last Elderhostel vacation. Hubert and Ruth Carnes, for example, still had fresh memories of the weeks last summer they spent at Brigham Young University and the University of Utah. ''We learned a lot from the lectures about the history of the West and about the Mormon settlement,'' he recalled while relaxing in a dorm lounge with other Elderhostelers between morning classes. ''The highlight of the whole experience came when the entire Elderhostel group got the chance to sing with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.''
Although entirely different in geographical location and course content, the Carneses were clearly enjoying life on the small New England College campus as much as they had out West. ''Part of the fun is the chance to feel like a part of the college,'' said Mrs. Carnes. ''And I think it might even be fun for the young people, too. Today three different students stopped us to ask where we're from, what we're studying. And then it's a great way to make new friends. You get a chance to talk and visit with people in a way you don't on a tour bus.''
For Gertrude and Sidney Kozak of Milwaukee, Elderhostel has been a way to combine their interest in history with exploring new regions. ''It's an excellent way to get to know another part of the country,'' said Mrs. Kozak. ''We had never been to New Hampshire before, and have really enjoyed the free time to explore the countryside. Just yesterday we discovered an 18th-century cemetery behind the college. But the courses are a big part of it too, and they will certainly prompt further reading once we get home.''
Because most Elderhostel programs include at least one course pertaining to the geographical region where they take place, participants often can learn more about a locality than if they were simply traveling through. Usually one field trip is included during the week, such as the trip to Canterbury Shaker Village that the Elderhostelers at New England College took to complement their study of Shaker music.
A look through the hefty Elderhostel catalog reveals that the variety of subjects and geographical locations in which to study them is as diverse as the nation - and, in some cases, the world - itself. It is possible to study the Indian culture of the Southwest at the University of Arizona, Hawaiian literature and legends at Hawaii Loa College, Alaskan wildlife at Prince William Sound Community College, and the ecology of the South Carolina ''low country'' at the College of Charleston, to name just a few. A bit further afield are Elderhostel programs in Canada, Bermuda, and Britain.
Not all of the Elderhostel programs take place on college campuses. One of the most popular is offered at Pinkham Notch Camp, the Appalachian Mountain Club's cozy lodge that sits just beneath Mt. Washington in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Last fall a group of Elderhostelers from as far as California and Texas gathered for a week of nature walks and lectures on the Bronte sisters , Greek and Latin literature, and the autumn ecology of the White Mountains.
For George and Anne Berlent of New Jersey, it was a chance to follow up on an earlier Elderhostel week at New Hampshire College where they had studied the history of the White Mountains. ''Elderhostel has become a way of life for us,'' he said, while on an afternoon walk along a birch-shaded dirt road not far from the lodge. ''We've met people from all over the country, from all walks of life. It's true that you give up some privacy by staying in dormitories, but you get so much more back.''
To Anne Roberts, who traveled from southern California to enjoy the fall foliage at Pinkham Notch Camp, Elderhostel has become important as well. ''After my husband passed on a few years ago, a friend put me on the Elderhostel mailing list,'' she explained. ''It was the nicest thing she could have done. It's a chance to keep on learning and to make new friends.''
Whether Elderhostelers choose a place such as Pinkham Notch Camp or a college campus, most of the week-long programs are similar in structure if not content. Participants usually arrive on a Sunday afternoon, the evening devoted to settling in and getting to know one another at a reception and at dinner. Classes, which are optional and do not include homework or grades, begin the next day with a schedule that usually calls for two in the morning and one in the afternoon.
Just as the other students on campus do, Elderhostelers sleep in dorm rooms and take their meals in the dining commons. The nonluxurious setup is the reason Elderhosteling is one of the most economical ways to vacation - most weeks cost
The growth of Elderhostel since its founding in 1975, starting as it did with 220 participants that first year and then increasing tenfold in the two years after that, has been nothing short of phenomenal. It all started because a Boston University administrator named Marty Knowlton left his job at the age of 50 to backpack through Europe. What impressed him most during his travels were the inexpensive youth hostels and the ''folk schools,'' a European concept which enables older people to return to campus life for short periods.
When he returned from abroad, Marty Knowlton merged the two ideas by starting the first Elderhostel program at five colleges in New Hampshire, among them New England College. It rapidly grew to include many other participating colleges and universities and now has affiliations in every state. Recently the program has gone from being strictly a summer offering to one that is offered year-round.
All the registration for the programs at the various campuses is handled through the Elderhostel office in Boston. Funding for the program has come through a combination of private grants and the fees charged to participants.
''The Elderhostel fees are designed to cover costs, but they don't really,'' says Jim Verschueren, an administrator at New England College who directs the Elderhostel program on that campus. ''However, because colleges are going through a time of falling enrollments, Elderhostel has been a valuable source of publicity and goodwill that many schools, particularly smaller ones, can use right now. And, of course, it's a good way to put empty classrooms and dormitories back into use. The program might not have worked so well back in the 1960s when enrollments were bursting.''
The only requirement for joining an Elderhostel program is that the participant be at least 60 years old or married to someone who is. No academic degrees or specified level of education are necessary.
Whether or not Elderhostelers have PhDs or are high school dropouts, professors invariably find them among the most astute students they have ever taught, says Jim Verschueren. ''The older people have more to challenge the professor with. They bring far more life experiences to the class than the 20 -year-olds do, and they're usually far less hesitant to express their viewpoints. Sometimes the subject of the class is something that they have experienced firsthand.''
For the Elderhostelers themselves, there is the chance to make those life experiences that they bring to class all the more enriching.
Said participant Ruth Heller, ''When I graduated from Wellesley College 40 years ago, we were told, 'Don't stop learning.' With something like Elderhostel, you don't.'' Practical Information: For more information, including a catalog and registration forms, write to Elderhostel, 100 Boylston Street, Suite 200, Boston , Mass. 02116.