While Cal State University raises tuition, over-60 students get in free

By: Lisa M Krieger/Mercury News

At a time when state budget cuts are increasing fees for young students at California State University, a little-known program allows senior citizens to enroll for free.

The “Over 60 Program” waives tuition for Californians 60 or older, regardless of income. Meanwhile, since its creation 30 years ago, annual tuition for younger students has climbed from $160 to $4,230. And last year, CSU cut back enrollment by thousands of students, while continuing to allow any interested elders to register for open classes.

It’s a small program — only 900 of 433,000 CSU students participated last year — but the education is worth an estimated $2 million to $3 million annually.

For students such as Timothy Fitzgerald, 64, it enables a lifelong path of education. While living on meager Social Security and disability benefits, he’s completing his fifth degree at San Jose State University and his third master’s.

“I see it as a benefit that the state can offer older citizens, helping us pursue a life of the mind,” said Fitzgerald, a conscientious student who has spent every recent afternoon at SJSU’s Martin Luther King Library preparing for a philosophy exam.

“I never would have had an opportunity to go to school unless there was support for tuition,” he said. “I do not want to sit on the sidelines.”

Another CSU student, 76-year-old Frances Gordon, made headlines in 2002 when she graduated summa cum laude from the San Marcos campus, arriving at graduation ceremonies on a red Honda motorcycle.

Space is scarce

The senior students don’t bump younger students; they register after regular students are enrolled and if there’s no space, they don’t get a seat.

But the entire system is under stress. Tuition has increased seven times in eight years. And CSU has taken other budget-cutting measures, such as reducing enrollment, implementing furloughs and cutting staff.

“Free education for folks over 60 is a nice thing for the public to support,” said Steve Boilard of the Legislative Analyst’s Office in Sacramento, who studies the state’s higher education spending patterns. “But the question isn’t ‘Is it good?’ but rather, ‘Is it the best way to spend our education dollars?’ ”

Further, Boilard noted, “Turning away recent high school graduates while providing slots to retirees isn’t the best way to allocate scarce enrollment slots.”

San Jose State parent Marie Ciano is 59, but said, “I do not believe it is fair for anyone to receive a waiver because of age.” Upon turning 60, she said she’d welcome paying a small fee. “I would like to attend some classes for the joy of the knowledge without placing a burden on the resources of the university.”

There are some tuition breaks offered to a few other groups of students, as well. For instance, children of dead or disabled veterans get a free education, regardless of family income. So do children of dead or injured firefighters, police officers or victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack — but they must prove financial need.

The Over 60 Program was established by CSU trustees in 1979, when California’s economy was strong and the state supported 90 percent of the cost of a CSU education — and the total cost of tuition was merely $160.

Faculty say they cherish the program and its older students.

“Such a program fits squarely with CSU’s mission and therefore should be celebrated, along with all other drives for equity and access in education,” said English professor Stefan Frazier.

“I was delighted to have them in my classes, said professor John Engell, chairman of the Department of English and Comparative Literature. “These older students exemplify the idea of education as a lifelong endeavor, and they bring to class a wealth of experiences and wisdom. They therefore serve as role models for younger students.”

“However, I wonder if SJSU might find a positive way to urge these over-60 students to become active financial contributors to the university during our current budget crisis,” Engell said.

Positive step

Some students also believe the program is a positive step.

“I fully support the Over 60 Program,” said Eric Acedo, a San Jose State junior majoring in environmental studies.

“Although relentless fee increases make staying in college more and more unattainable for regular students, that does not justify creating more difficulty in pursuing further education by revoking the benefits of the Over 60 Program. The less economic barriers there are to battling ignorance, the better.”

Boilard, of the Legislative Analyst’s Office, suggested “means testing,” so that wealthy retirees would be expected to pay. Several parents suggested a way for older students to “audit” courses, rather than taking them for academic credit.

Meanwhile, Fitzgerald is hitting the books. Fitzgerald has enrolled in the program since 2006, earning a 3.4 GPA in courses such as Political Sociology; Poverty, Power and Wealth; and a graduate seminar in financial inequality.

If he passes his exam, he’ll have graduate degrees in philosophy, history and sociology. He hopes it will help him publish his memoirs and a study of Later 20th Century Life in San Jose and the Far West.

“I am not likely to take more coursework from San Jose State,” he said, sadly. “What would they admit me to study, if they did?”