A University of Minnesota program allowing senior citizens to enroll in college courses at a discounted tuition has added fuel to the raging debate over how to deal with the rising costs of higher education.
An “NBC Nightly News” story published Sunday highlighted the U’s Senior Citizen Education Program, created by a decades-old state statute requiring state-supported colleges and universities across Minnesota to permit residents 62 or older to audit classes for free or earn credit at the bargain price of $10 per credit.
The program at the state’s flagship university was thrust into the spotlight as the U’s governing board prepares to vote on a budget proposal seeking a 2.5% tuition increase for Minnesota undergraduates at the Twin Cities campus next fall.
And as Democratic presidential candidates and lawmakers promise to address the issue of college affordability, the NBC story caught the attention of advocates of free college tuition.
“Wouldn’t it be great if these kinds of educational opportunities were available to ALL seniors, single parents, career-switchers, etc. at, say, community colleges across the country? Such a thing could be possible with tuition-free public colleges and universities,” tweeted U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a freshman Democrat from New York.
Julie Selander, a director of student services at the U, said the school is simply complying with Minnesota law, and other states have similar statutes.
“I don’t believe there are any state appropriations given to any of the state-supported colleges for this effort,” she said. “It’s just if there’s extra seats, then you should allow this registration for senior citizens at this low administrative fee.”
Still, with many students taking on large amounts of debt to pay for higher education, some undergrads said the NBC segment rubbed them the wrong way.
“It’s almost unfair to the students now that people who already have college degrees, and paid a lot less money for that college degree, can go back and still take classes for $10,” said Hannah Jeffers, a senior at the U.
Others said they appreciate the fresh points of view an older peer might bring to class. They questioned what is being done to make college more affordable for younger people.
Catalina Anampa Castro, a rising senior at the U, took an education course with a retired teacher who had 30 years of experience in the classroom.
“Having his perspective in the class was really helpful for my learning because whenever we talked about policies in education, he actually talked about how they worked in practice,” said Anampa Castro, who is studying sociology and pays in-state tuition. “But it’s really hard as a student to think about how I’m working three jobs to pay for housing, tuition and food.”
Tuition for state residents at the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus cost $14,760 for the 2018-19 school year. According to the state’s Office of Higher Education, that’s a 2,700% increase since the 1970-71 academic year, when in-state students paid the equivalent of $522 in tuition and fees, when adjusted for inflation.
The Minnesota Legislature created the program for seniors in 1975, when baby boomers made up most of the college-aged population. A senior citizen at the time could pay just $2 per credit, or about $13 today, but only if there was space in the class after students paying full price had the chance to enroll.
As more baby boomers reach retirement age, the U’s program has grown in popularity — more than 500 senior citizens enrolled to study everything from creative writing to biology to ceramics during the last school year.
Tom Anderson, 67, has taken multiple discounted courses at the U over the past year as he works toward a degree in American Studies after a more than 30-year career with 3M — three decades he spent paying state taxes, he noted wryly.
Anderson said the problem of college debt isn’t new. When he first went to college in the early 1970s, he worked three jobs and took on $3,000 of debt.
“To me, the story hasn’t changed. The dollars have changed,” Anderson said.