ANCHORAGE - University of Alaska regents voted Wednesday to maintain a tuition waiver for older students but raised the eligibility age.
On a motion by Regents Board President Brian Rogers of Fairbanks, regents voted to continue free tuition to Alaskans "who are otherwise age eligible to receive full Social Security benefits." That effectively raises eligibility to age 65.
The proposal also "grandfathered in the grandfathers," Rogers said. Alaskans between the ages of 60 to 65 eligible for the waiver as of Wednesday can continue to take classes for free.
Patrick Luby, advocacy director for AARP Alaska, turned in more than 5,400 signatures Tuesday protesting the possible end to waivers, about 10 times the number older students who take the classes. He left the Wednesday meeting happy.
"I think it's a good-faith compromise," Luby said.
For younger students, regents approved a 10 percent tuition hike starting next year, the fourth consecutive yearly 10 percent increase.
Tuition will increase from $99 to $109 per credit for lower division classes and $114 to $123 for upper division classes. The cost for a full-time, undergraduate student will increase from about $1,392 per semester to $1,530 beginning in fall 2006.
UA President Mark Hamilton's recommendation to ditch the tuition waiver for senior citizens generated more comment than any issue since the university restructured about 15 years ago, Rogers and other regents said.
The old policy allowed Alaskans age 60 or older to take classes without paying tuition if seats were not filled by paying students. The older students were required to pay class fees and charges for student services.
Students first questioned the fairness of the tuition waiver for older students three years ago as the university considered increasing tuition for everyone else, Hamilton said.
Senior citizens as a group are the wealthiest in the country and in Alaska, and if they needed money to attend classes, they were eligible for the same financial aid as other students, he said Tuesday.
As a compromise, he recommended raising the eligibility age and allowing a 50 percent tuition discount.
Regent Cynthia Henry of Fairbanks tried to remove the grandfather clause, which failed 3-7, then offered an amendment to require senior citizens to pay half the tuition that other students do.
"Fifty percent is a reasonable amount," she said. That measure failed 4-6.
Regents approved Rogers' proposal 8-2 with Henry and Regent Mike Snowden of Sitka dissenting.
"In all fairness, I just can't personally buy into the idea that it costs nothing," Snowden said.
The Legislature, which holds the purse strings for the university, will pay close attention to how the university tries to cut costs, Snowden said.
"The people who can afford to pay, I think they should," Snowden said, and he urged fellow board members to make the tough decision to change the waiver policy.
Rogers said he was among regents who urged Hamilton to propose eliminating the older student tuition waiver, but said he learned from the comments submitted.
"It's clear that Alaskans feel pretty passionate about our seniors," Rogers said.
Regent Carl Marrs of Anchorage said he hoped people who turned out to support free tuition for seniors would show the same passion for the university when officials seek more financial support before the Legislature.
"For this university to survive, this is the kind of major push we need on the whole budget," Marrs said.
The tuition increase for younger students was approved 8-2, with Fran Rose of Anchorage and student Regent Jacob Gondek, a civil engineering major at UA Anchorage, voting no.
On a recommendation from Gondek, the board held off on another proposed, 7 percent tuition increase that would have taken effect in fall 2007.