Making the Grade: Tuition waiver gives seniors 2nd chance at learning

Even though Roger DePuy, 75, had an accomplished career with IBM and retired comfortably in 2010, there was one thing he regretted not having done.

“I went to college when I was 18, but life happened, and I dropped out,” he said. “Then in 2011, I realized I lived just a mile from Kennesaw State and that I still wanted to complete my degree and plaster that paper on the wall.”

Any doubts DePuy had about writing papers, attending lectures and keeping up with technology evaporated when he found out that as a Georgia resident older than 62, he could attend courses for the cost of books and parking.

“That cinched the deal,” he said. “I was as nervous as an 18-year-old when I went to orientation, but I also had a great time.”

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In the 2017 spring semester, 1,055 Georgia adults took advantage of the Senior Citizen Waiver that allows them to take classes for fun or degree credit without paying tuition.

The program, launched in 1987, gives seniors the chance to take classes for enjoyment or to work toward a formal undergraduate or graduate degree. (Professional schools are not included in the program.) After being accepted, the new students must follow each institution’s guidelines for registration on a space-available basis and pay for books, parking or any course-related costs (think lab fees).

“Some of the seniors who sign up are actually re-tooling; they’d like to go into business, management or marketing, while others are looking at getting another degree,” said Joyce Jones, vice chancellor for student affairs for the University System of Georgia. “Some also start by taking a course they’re interested in and end up going for a degree.”

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Whatever their intentions, seniors ready to head back to school must first be formally accepted into the university they want to attend. That process includes paying an application fee and providing documents around health, previous schooling and citizenship that all prospective students are required to produce.

For Dunwoody’s Lynne Byrd, that meant digging up an original birth certificate and some old college transcripts from 1958.

“They won’t take copies of anything, so you have to hunt that up,” said Byrd, 78, who went back to Georgia Perimeter’s Dunwoody campus in 2015 and earned an associate’s degree in English. “But it was worth it. I was excited by the number of older people I saw there and how encouraging they were to younger students. And it was fun. I met so many new people.”

Byrd was so inspired by the experience, in March she published “Never Too Late to Graduate,” stories of non-traditional students who decided to go back to college.

“They told me over and over that it will keep you young, and you’ll have so much to share with the younger students,” she said. “I found that was so true. Pick one course, something you always wanted to learn, and once you get your feet wet, you’ll want to keep going. And don’t be put off by technology. I wasn’t raised with it, but I found the schools want you to succeed and have all sorts of support programs to help you.”

RELATED: UGA creates more than 100 scholarships

In May 2016, DePuy earned a degree in Integrative Studies, combining political science and geographic information systems. The achievement that has inspired his daughter to go back to school as well. “She’s not 62, so it wasn’t free, but she’s about to graduate, and I’m very proud. I go to Starbucks every morning and chat with anyone who will sit at my table about this opportunity right down the street. Not to go is like leaving money on the table.”

General guidelines for the 62-and-older waiver, as well as links to all of the universities and colleges in the state system, are available here

In other education news:

Sonny Perdue met with nutritionists to discuss the future of Georgia school lunches.

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