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UA may cut free tuition for seniors

Officials point to lost revenue, unfairness to younger students

Posted: Sunday, July 17, 2005

The University of Alaska may discontinue a program that offers free tuition to residents 60 and older.

Seniors said free tuition allows them to find second careers and pursue interests while adding a different perspective to classroom discussions. But university officials cited issues of lost revenue and fairness to younger students.

The Board of Regents is scheduled to consider the proposal from university President Mark Hamilton at its September meeting in Anchorage. It would take effect in fall 2006.

John Pugh, chancellor of the University of Alaska Southeast, said the regents' discussion may center on a waiver based on need or a reduced-cost waiver.

"We ought to be capturing (tuition) from those who can afford it," Pugh said.

At the same September meeting, Hamilton plans to ask regents to increase tuition by 10 percent for fall 2006 and 7 percent for fall 2007. Tuition also will jump by 10 percent this fall for the third year in a row.

Some seniors who take university courses are looking for a second career or ways to prepare for meaningful volunteer work, said Elizabeth Cuadra, 72, of Juneau.

"It really enriches their lives to be able to do that. If they can't have that senior citizen tuition waiver, they aren't going to be able to take the course, a lot of them," she said.

Cuadra has completed three creative writing courses at UAS under the senior waiver. The courses were instrumental in her completing a travel memoir, a manuscript of poems, and articles for Senior Voice, a monthly publication, she said.

In the fall of 2004, 564 senior citizens took advantage of the waiver, worth $183,000 in tuition, according to the university. Eighty-six seniors took classes at UAS. Roughly 32,700 students enrolled in the entire university system that fall.

Doubling the fall figures gives an idea of a year's worth of waivers, said Kate Ripley, university director of public affairs.

Under the waiver, seniors can take a course for free only if it's not filled by paying students. That's a justifiable condition, said Sara Willson of Juneau, a senior who has taken courses for free.

"But my thought is if there's space available in the classroom, it's a benefit the seniors can enjoy without any cost to the state," Willson said.

The waiver program actually adds revenue to the university because participants still pay fees, such as for student government, and buy textbooks from the university bookstore, Cuadra said.

Cuadra paid $61 in various fees when she took a course at UAS three years ago, while having $237 in tuition waived.

"It's an equity issue more than a dollars or cents issue," Ripley said.

It's hard to look in the face of a financially strapped young student who has seen three years of tuition increases while others receive a benefit based on age, not need, Ripley said.

Many states offer some sort of senior tuition waiver. Some states allow students only to audit courses and not receive credit. A few states offer a discount, not a complete waiver. Some limit the number of courses or allow waivers only for degree-seeking students. Some states leave it up to the individual university and don't mandate a waiver.

Washington state allows residents 60 and older to audit courses for free if space is available. The seniors aren't expected to do class work or take tests, so they don't add to the professors' work load.

In the last academic year, 758 seniors took free courses at the University of Washington in Seattle, out of an undergraduate student body of roughly 26,000, said UW spokesman Bob Roseth.

"I've never heard anybody in the higher-education community propose to end the program," he said. "When you look at the (enrollment) numbers, it's scarcely enough to make a difference in the tuition numbers."

To Willson, the issue is more than financial. She has taught accounting in universities for 20 years. Classes are better when students are from various age groups because they have different points of view, she said.

"They just add so much in terms of 'I remember when,' " she said.

It's not clear how much diversity would be lost if the senior waiver is eliminated.

The University of Alaska's student body is more diverse by age groups than the national average, and the vast majority are paying tuition. About one in 10 students are over 50. One in four are 40 or older, according to university statistics.

• Eric Fry can be reached at eric.fry@juneauempire.com.



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