My Turn: UA's plan to eliminate senior tuition waiver sparks debate

Benefit for Alaska's seniors must be part of university's larger budget discussion

Posted: Friday, September 09, 2005

Several years ago, some smart people at the University of Alaska realized we could save money by eliminating the paper paycheck stub mailed to employees - nearly all of whom are paid direct deposit anyway. Employees now view pay stubs in a secure online Web site. The $70,000 annual savings might seem like a drop in the bucket of a multi-million dollar budget, yet that $70,000 is enough to pay salary and benefits for one professor for a year.

The university roots out savings in small amounts when and where it can. There's no single silver bullet here - just many golden BBs.

The university this next fiscal year anticipates steep increases in retirement, health insurance, negotiated wages and other escalating costs, such as fuel. Our early estimates show we'll need an additional $30 million from the state just to maintain status quo.

That's just to keep classes rolling, the lights on and bills paid. The largest state increase we've ever enjoyed has been $17 million, so I know what a $30 million increase is up against in Juneau.

This brings me to my current dilemma: Since 1981, the university has given students over the age of 60 free tuition. Most have used this opportunity to take general interest courses, such as art and Spanish. The free tuition isn't based on financial need, simply age.

During that same time frame, the cost of tuition overall has increased by more than 545 percent. This fall, students face their third, 10 percent tuition hike in three years, with another 10 percent increase on the table.

The time to review the senior tuition waiver program is now, especially in light of ongoing tuition increases for all other students. A typical UA student is a 27-year-old mother working 40 hours a week and carrying a full-time college load. She may or may not qualify for financial aid, but she does not get a tuition waiver.

You might ask, why are we raising tuition at such rates? We did this because a quality higher education in Alaska was going for bargain basement prices. We couldn't sustain our programs and meet the state's new economic challenges and job demands without addressing our out-of-date tuition structure. Yet tuition at the University of Alaska, even with the recent hikes, is still among the most affordable in the country.

We can't depend on the state treasury for everything, and we aren't. We can't depend on our students to shoulder the entire cost of the university system, and they aren't. But most of them are paying their fair share, and that gives them credibility when the budget talks turn serious.

This is a public institution, and we must show a willingness to at least look at where savings or efficiencies can be made. We've been doing this in the past and we'll continue to do so in the future.

Now, I've heard the public outcry against eliminating the senior waiver. I understand the points raised by many of you - many who communicated to me personally or through these editorial pages. That's why I've been looking at proposing modifications to the program rather than complete elimination. I'm open to suggestions. One that makes good sense to me and would seem a reasonable compromise to folks on both sides of the issue is to raise the age to Social Security eligibility and make the waiver a 50 percent discount, rather than 100 percent. We could then use the revenue generated to help those senior citizens and other students who need it most. Meanwhile, efforts to increase financial aid for all students must continue.

Members of the Board of Regents will look at the senior waiver issue at their Sept. 20-21 meeting in Anchorage. I look forward to the discussion.

The public reaction to my thoughts on the waiver program has shown me one thing: People care deeply about the University of Alaska. I hope that activism and enthusiasm carries itself to the halls of the Capitol in Juneau, where support for the university system this next year will be crucial.

• Mark Hamilton is the president of the University of Alaska system, which has 16 campuses from Ketchikan to Kotzebue.



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