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Dale Wetzel, Associated Press, Published January 26 2011

Free college classes for older North Dakota residents?

BISMARCK – Allowing North Dakota residents who are at least 55 years old to take college classes for free could complicate matters for paying students and would make enrollment reporting more confusing, the chancellor of North Dakota’s university system said Tuesday.

William Goetz spoke at a House Education Committee hearing against legislation, sponsored by Rep. Vicky Steiner, R-Dickinson, that would let older North Dakotans enroll in undergraduate college courses without paying tuition or fees if their chosen class had available slots.

Steiner said the proposal would not include online classes, and would not require the hiring of additional instructors. Older students would not have to meet any class admission requirements. Other states offer college classes for older students gratis or at reduced rates, Steiner said.

“If we can encourage them in lifelong learning, and if we have the availability within our university system, some of these people have paid into that university system all their lives,” Steiner said. “I would love to see them be able to participate with that incredible experience that the universities offer.”

The committee did not take action on the bill Tuesday. The panel will make a recommendation later on whether it should be approved or defeated.

North Dakota’s Board of Higher Education already has a policy that allows administrators at its 11 colleges to permit state residents who are at least 65 years old to sit in on classes and waive audit fees, Goetz said. A student who audits a course does not earn academic credit.

Although Steiner said older students who enroll for free should not be part of colleges’ enrollment counts, Goetz said they would have to be counted if they were attempting to earn college credit.

North Dakota’s university system already enrolls about 400 students aged 55 to 64, who take about 2,200 credit hours each semester and pay about $1.8 million in tuition and fees, Goetz said.

Two House Education Committee members, Rep. Joe Heilman, R-Fargo, a recent graduate of North Dakota State University, and Rep. Corey Mock, D-Grand Forks, a University of North Dakota alumnus, wondered whether an older student would block someone else from getting into a needed class if the younger student was late in enrolling, or needed to reshuffle his or her schedule.

Some university programs, such as engineering, charge significant fees to students that older students would not have to pay under Steiner’s bill, Mock said. An older North Dakotan could conceivably use the law to earn a private pilot’s license at little cost by attending UND’s Center for Aerospace Sciences, Mock said.

“That person ... could get a $60,000 to $100,000 degree without having to pay,” Mock said.

Steiner said if a program had an open spot, an older student should be allowed to occupy it.

“If there were empty chairs, and that professor was paid, the lights were paid, and the university basically is paying for that chair, I really don’t know any reason to deny somebody that access,” she said.