Opposing ways for universities to support senior citizens as students: the case of Minnesota

How should colleges and universities address learners over 65?

This strategic question have been cropping up quietly in some higher ed discussions lately, given current demographic and financial trends (aging population, rising economic stress on campuses).  It was thrown into sharp relief two weeks ago, thanks to a tv news story and its social media response.

NBC did a short story about elders taking classes at the University of Minnesota.  It was a feel-good piece, portraying happy older folks (62 on up) describing how pleased they were to return to the classroom.  Specifically, these learners took advantage of a state law guaranteeing a price of $10 per credit hour.  Seniors can audit classes, or take them for full credit.

NBC shared it on Twitter, emphasizing the baby boomer generational swath of the senior population…


…and then the feel-good vibe became something else, as criticism mounted on Twitter.  The most prominent social media user in the House of Representatives viewed this program as a good start for revising the business model for most of American higher ed:

Others slammed the Minnesota fee structure as hypocritical.  For example,



This pushback is based in part on the historical difference between 1960s-70s tuition (lower, much stronger state support) and costs now (higher, states defunding, financialization).  It’s also based on the story’s visual and voice-over integration of younger and senior students within the same classes.  This drove the inter-generational comparison home.

The Minnesota story describes one way universities can engage with elders: generously, in recognition of their lives.  It’s the opposite of Arizona State University’s strategy, which charges very high rates to bring some seniors on campus.   Both approaches seek to broaden higher education access to our oldest people, just through very different business models.  Both connect learners across generational divides:

Other [student]s said they appreciate the fresh points of view an older peer might bring to class…

Catalina Anampa Castro, a rising senior at the U, took an education course with a retired teacher who had 30 years of experience in the classroom.

“Having his perspective in the class was really helpful for my learning because whenever we talked about policies in education, he actually talked about how they worked in practice,” said Anampa Castro, who is studying sociology and pays in-state tuition.

Politically and culturally, Minnesota’s program is in the classic blue state vein with a dash of New Deal/Great Society progressivism.  Arizona’s is, in contrast, entrepreneurial and aligned more with a red state growing its retiree population.

We can view each effort skeptically.  Minnesota’s program is unfair to younger people, while Arizona’s is unfair to everyone who can’t afford expensive housing.  The former loses money, or at least runs into opportunity cost issues, while the latter excludes the majority of non-wealthy retirees.

What does this mean for the future of education?

Minnesota’s plan points to three different paths forward for public campuses as they seek to engage seniors while trying to be financially sustainable.  They could:

  1. Keep supporting elders at these nominal fees (Minnesota).  That’s a social good, especially for older folks remaining in the workforce.
  2. Boost prices for people over 62 (Arizona).  Demographics guarantee a rising number of that population.  The cultural insistence on everyone getting more post-secondary learning should keep demand high.  Concerns about cognitive disorders may drive more to school to keep their brains learning.  This should boost institutional revenue.
  3. Combine 1+2 for different populations, not unlike the current financial model of steeply discounting certain students while charing others full freight.
  4. Cut all tuition and fees to that basically free level.

#4 is a fantasy for now.  #s 1 and 2 are real choices facing American higher ed.  Which colleges and universities will hew to the Minnesota model, and which will follow ASU?  Who will combine them?

(thanks to Linda Burns)

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6 Responses to Opposing ways for universities to support senior citizens as students: the case of Minnesota

  1. When I lived in Buffalo, the University of Buffalo offered free tuition to seniors. I took several classes and learned a lot from some excellent faculty – and I contributed quite a bit to each class I took. Overall, these were very positive experiences, and it was a real pleasure to see young students in action and engage with them in class. #4 should be a reality across the country. Many older adults cannot afford tuition, have already paid their debt to society, and can be an added bonus to any class. I found myself collaborating with a few instructors for some great and truly enjoyable Socratic dialogues.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      George, could seniors obtain credit from Buffalo classes, or was it auditing alone?

      • It was auditing alone – but the requirements included that you had to do the same work as the students, even though you did not get credit. The idea was to take advantage of the learning for free but not for credit. For me, that was fine, and I was able to work things out with the instructors for most of the courses I enrolled in.

        • Bryan Alexander says:

          That’s a fine thing, and one that’s widespread in the US.
          Minnesota’s plan differs in allowing seniors to win credit for coursework.
          I think the original plan was that few would do this. But as you know better than most, growing numbers of elders are still working, and academic credit can help their careers.

          • I’m not sure if it’s widespread. Here in Ann Arbor at EMU and at U-M, I could not find a similar “free” auditing program for older adults. Also not sure if those 65 and older really care about obtaining credit, although if for-credit were available at no cost at the gradate level, I’d probably pursue a master’s degree in philosophy.

          • Chuck Wagner says:

            Hi Bryan, as a follow on to this conversation I just started taking Electronics courses for credit at a Minnesota technical college under the program described in the article. First, it’s “space available” so there has to be room in the class and I can’t register until the first day of class. Second, books aren’t included in that $20/credit, just the course.

            I’m retired, which is why I have the free time to take classes, so this isn’t going to build a career. I imagine most people who do this are simply doing it for personal growth (I want the skill to repair and maintain vintage computers) rather than to make an income.

            So the reality is that increasing the cost would just leave those seats empty – the number of us who could and would spend a few thousand a semester for personal growth is tiny.

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