Free tuition for senior citizens

Long after the pressure of passing final exams, turning in that last 15-page paper or sitting through graduation speeches, many people realize: Gee, college really was one of the best times in my life. If that’s the case, why not go back for fun - and for free?

In Georgia, residents 62 and older can sign up for courses at any of the 31 colleges and universities in the state system and attend without paying tuition, although some nominal fees may apply. The benefit is one that few senior citizens know about, since it isn’t widely marketed, but most institutions will have information about the program on their websites.

“People do hear about it and send us e-mails saying, ‘What do I have to do? What’s it about?’“ said Mark Daddona, associate vice president for enrollment management and academic services at Clayton State University. “We don’t really do any advertising for it. There is information about it on our web page, but what people do need to know first is that they must follow the usual application process to apply.”

So even those who already hold bachelor’s degrees must apply as if they were new students, which means filling out the application form and supplying the required documentation, such as transcripts and proof of residency and age. If they’re interested in taking graduate level courses, they must meet all the requirements for the program they select.

The second important fact senior scholars should know is that they are restricted to registering until just before the term begins, unlike the traditional students who may sign up for classes months before the semester starts. As latecomers, they may find space severely limited.

“For instance, at Clayton, fall classes start August 18, and these students won’t be able to register until August 13,” said Daddona. “But I get very few complaints from students who say the course they want is closed. There’s usually someone who drops it at the last minute, so it usually works out well.”

Senior students are often responsible for nominal fees that vary from institution to institution, said Daddona. At Clayton State in Morrow, they pay an application fee, but once accepted, the only cost they’ll incur is for a campus parking permit.

The 62-and-older students also have the choice of taking courses for credit or auditing, which means sitting in on the class but not having to take exams and earn a grade. But many opt to take the credit that will go towards an official degree, as many of the 49 seniors enrolled this spring at Clayton State are doing.

“But there are others who just want to take a variety of classes for fun,” said Daddona. “For so many of these individuals, this is their time, with no work or family to get in the way, and they’re doing this for their own enjoyment.”

At the University of West Georgia in Carrollton, Admissions Director Justin Barlow sees the same mix of reasons for seniors returning to college.

“This is the group that says, ‘I really want to take an art class’ or ‘I want to learn to speak Spanish’,” said Barlow. “But there are others who are very serious about seeking a degree. If they are, that means they have to meet the same requirements as if they were 18 or 24: They have to take a placement exam, get their transcripts, fill out the application. It’s not just show up, sit in class and have fun.”

West Georgia does not require seniors to pay an application charge, but they are charged for some fees as well as the cost of any books and supplies. During the fall 2013 term, 33 senior students were enrolled. The same semester saw 105 seniors studying at Kennesaw State and 187 at Georgia State - the highest number of seniors in the metro area.

Daddona said having senior scholars in the classroom adds an extra dynamic.

“They are wonderful role models for our other students because they are usually very serious,” he said. “They come to class; they’re prepared; they do the work. We’re very happy to have them as part of the diversity of our campus.”

For information about senior tuition waivers, contact the admissions office of any college or university in the Georgia state system.