Bill proposes free education for seniorsBISMARCK — A Dickinson lawmaker wants to get more older adults into the state’s college classrooms.
BISMARCK — A Dickinson lawmaker wants to get more older adults into the state’s college classrooms.
House Bill 1385 would allow North Dakota residents 55 and older to attend any undergraduate class at the state’s public colleges without paying tuition and fees.
They also would not have to demonstrate the academic achievements normally required of students.
Older students would need to pay for books and supplies and would earn academic credit through the program. They would only be allowed to join a class if there are open seats remaining after regularly admitted students sign up.
Other states have similar tuition waivers as a retirement recruitment tool, especially because baby boomers are interested in learning, said bill sponsor Rep. Vicky Steiner, R-Dickinson.
“It’s just a way for the state to give back to those who have probably been paying into that system all their lives,” she said. “If it doesn’t cost the state money and we’re able to allow these people to participate, I think it would be wonderful (for) them to have some lifelong learning experiences.”
Bill co-sponsor Sen. Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, said it’s an opportunity for colleges to build relationships with older residents and for older residents to get involved
“Many of them sell themselves short. They have something to offer to society, and this may rekindle them,” he said.
Chancellor Bill Goetz said the university system is working on an initiative for those who either attended college and didn’t complete a degree or never attended at all.
He called Steiner’s bill “a very noble idea,” but is concerned about the number of people who may be interested and the financial impact on the colleges. The university system is analyzing the issue, he said.
Steiner’s bill states colleges may not employ additional staff or increase the availability of courses based solely on interest by the 55 and older students interested in the program. The program would not apply to online classes.
North Dakota University System policy now allows colleges to waive the audit fee for on-campus courses for those 65 and older. Audited classes do not count as credit.
Steiner said some have pointed out these students could get a full degree through her proposed program. But she said it may take them awhile because freshmen and sophomore classes are often full.
“It isn’t really so much about getting them a free degree as it is allowing them to know they’re welcome,” she said.
Many older residents are on fixed incomes and furthering their higher education dreams is difficult, Steiner said.
She originally planned to pitch the idea as a pilot project for Dickinson State University, but after talking with others, she submitted it to apply to all public colleges.
The proposal looks like “a really exciting idea,” said Janis Cheney, North Dakota state director of AARP.
“I think that it supports the premise that we’ve always had that people, as they get older, want to stay engaged and informed and want to continue learning,” she said.
Cheney doubts there would be “a headlong rush” of people interested in the program, but she thinks interest would grow as people found out about it.
The bill hearing on this issue is set for 11 a.m. CST Tuesday in the Pioneer Room of the state Capitol.
Finneman is a multimedia reporter for Forum Communications Co.