Senior citizens in Northern Virginia soon will have a liberal arts learning center all their own at George Mason University.

Only seniors will be allowed to attend and teach classes offered by the Learning in Retirement Institute, which will open in March.

"We've needed it for some time," said Kathryn Brooks, 84, a Fairfax County resident whose seven-year campaign to establish the program in Northern Virginia is credited with bringing it about.

"The institute will fill the void for many professional retirees in this area who might not be inclined to visit a senior center," she said.

The target group for the nonprofit membership program is about 150,000 "young-old" in Fairfax and Arlington counties and Alexandria, although membership will be open to any senior. The term young-old refers to those 60 or older with a high degree of independence.

A minimum age of 62 or 65 will be set by the institute's board before registration opens for the first semester in the spring.

For an annual fee of about $250, members will be allowed to attend any of several dozen seminar-style courses that will be offered during a four-semester year.

Classes in such subjects as drama, history, politics, literature and foreign language will be designed to be intellectually challenging, and classes will be kept small -- 15 to 25 students each.

Students will be encouraged to participate in class discussions, although there will be no tests and students will not receive credits or degrees.

"It will be learning for the sheer joy of it," Brooks said.

Members will take part in special social events and will be given time to talk between the three classes offered each day.

"The social aspect is very important," Brooks said.

Learning-in-retirement programs are not new in the country or even in the area. A popular program has been operating on the American University campus since 1982. It has 400 members who pay dues of $250 a year for all programs.

The learning-in-retirement movement began nearly two decades ago in New York City at the New School for Social Research. Shortly thereafter, Harvard University established its program. The movement spread to California, where it is biggest, about 10 years ago. Today there are about 150 programs throughout the country.

The most successful programs are on college campuses, said Thea Johnson, chairman of the education subcommittee of the Fairfax County Commission on Aging. "The academic setting lends credibility," she said.

That's why the committee snapped up the university's offer of a permanent classroom in the Commerce Building and rejected several others for nonacademic locations, she said.

Now the institute must find ways to provide for its other needs. "We're doing this on a shoestring," Johnson said.

Members will be expected to donate time for the program's teaching and administrative tasks. Sponsors are needed to finance the first year of a full-time director's salary, mailings and scholarships for seniors who can't afford the membership fee. A computer is needed.

Various local government agencies are helping to get the program on its feet, but once the institute establishes a dues-paying membership, the program will be entirely self-supporting and run by its members.

To be put on the institute's mailing list, write Learning in Retirement Institute, c/o Fairfax County Department of Vocational Adult and Community Education, 7510 Lisle Ave., Falls Church, Va. 22043.

But please don't call, said Carol Ferrera, a county staff member on loan to help with the program's many start-up tasks.

"I have two big fears about this program," she said. "One is that no one will sign up, the other is that everyone will."

Word of mouth already has brought in dozens of requests for information, she said.