Molnar: Penny Wise?

Apr 7, 2016

Many people don’t know that until recently Vermont residents over age 65 could attend up to two courses at any of our state colleges and universities free of charge although with no credit. Surprisingly, very few are taking advantage of this currently – a mere 78 people around the state – probably because few know about it.

And now it’s too late to find out, because last month this advantage to state residency was discontinued. Beginning in the fall, seniors will be able to attend classes, for credit, starting at age 60, for half the tuition, which ranges from $800 to almost $1,900 for a three-credit course.

State Colleges Chancellor Jeb Spaulding offered two reasons for this policy change: seniors who want credit have to pay full tuition, and they’re not happy about it. But in fact, this seems fair. Those who want more, in this case course credit, should pay more. Those who want only to audit, should be able to do so without having to pay.

The other reason given is that the half tuition would add revenue to the financially-strapped state college system, especially as the number of Vermonters over age 65 will increase in the coming years. But an increase in revenue is unlikely, since the number choosing to pay many hundreds of dollars will most probably be far fewer than the already tiny number taking courses for free.

Seems to me there are only downsides to this unfortunate decision. There’s the loss of goodwill toward the state college system, goodwill that could have been vastly increased by promoting the free program. There’s also the potential loss – rather than gain – of funding. Many grateful seniors may well have the means to become donors to the system - if asked – yielding an income far in excess of the tuition very few are likely to pay.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there’s the loss of the presence of senior adults in the classroom, a presence that adds more than just age diversity. A 65-year-old sharing memories of the Vietnam War with 18-year-olds in a modern history class leaves an impression the best textbook or brilliant lecture cannot hope to match. An older person in a literature or an art class brings a wealth of life experience that vastly enriches the young students around her. The same goes for many other disciplines in which modeling wisdom and patience have much to teach, from economics to philosophy.

All these benefits have values that defy measurement in dollars. And now, apparently, they’ve been discarded.