Editorial: College should be affordable for students of all ages

Senior citizens can attend the University's classes for free or at a highly discounted rate, but all students should have access to an affordable education.

The Minnesota Daily Editorial Board

In light of recent news that the Board of Regents voted to approve a two percent tuition increase for the 2019-2020 school year, which is part of a larger budget approval that goes into effect starting July 1, we wanted to revisit an article published by the Minnesota Daily last fall.

The article showcased two University students, John Hartman and Michele Gersich, enrolled in the University’s Senior Citizen Education Program. This program, the SCEP, allows Minnesotan senior citizens — defined as being over the age of 62 — to audit University courses for free, or to pay a $10 fee to take the course for credit.

Previously, we reflected on the gift of knowledge and how we can overlook or become immune to the joy a yearning for knowledge can provide us. It is not just us — teens and young adults — who realize the joy and value of being in class; senior citizens realize this too.

Recently, an NBC Nightly News story reignited the long-standing conversation about the price of a college education. It featured several senior citizens who have enrolled in courses at the University as a part of the SCEP.

The disturbing fact is that the average one-year cost to attend a public four-year university has more than doubled in price, when adjusted for inflation, since the 1985-1986 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Accounting for the current rate of inflation, what used to cost around $9,000 for the 1985-1986 school year now costs about $20,000. The cost for a college education over a 30-year period has understandably increased.

But is the two-fold increase, when accounting for inflation, an appropriate amount? Theoretically, if no changes to cost had been made, college students would pay around $9,000 for the upcoming school year.

The predicament we are in of pulling together the necessary resources — that you are in, that your friends and classmates are in — to pay for college begs the question of why not all students pay the same rate of tuition and fees to earn credit at the University. Why not have all students pay the same rate of tuition and fees to earn credit? 

Given the exorbitant cost we pay for a college education, it is evermore important to recognize that 58 percent of student graduates from the University in 2017 graduated with debt, according to the Institute for College Access and Success. Why do some students pay thousands of dollars, and incur debt, while others do not? 

A reasonable defense of SCEP seems to be that students enrolled in this program can’t use these courses to earn a degree, something all other fee-paying students can do.  

A college education is important and valuable. It sparks and encourages intellectual curiosity and diversity. A degree that showcases this — our accomplishments, our trials and errors, our passion for knowledge — makes it all the better. 

But, despite the reward of years of learning and finally walking away with a degree in hand is something SCEP students won’t get to do. It is unsettling to know a piece of Minnesota legislation enacted in 1975 is still continuing to be enforced more than 40 years later. Especially when the cost of a college education has been disproportionately on the rise. 

Unquestionably, senior citizens should be able to audit and take courses for credit, just as we do. But we should draw our attention to the enormous discrepancy in the cost of our college education versus senior citizen University students who are receiving special treatment.  

This conversation is not over. Fee-paying students should challenge the status quo and insist on equal treatment. You have a voice. 

There is solidarity and success in numbers. Continuing this conversation amongst your peers is the first step in advocating for yourself and others when it comes to an affordable education. If we have the resources to provide free to extremely low-cost education for senior citizens, we can be doing better to ensure that our younger students have a fair and affordable shot at an education, too.

Student resources: 

Board of Regents contact: https://regents.umn.edu/board-office/contact 

MSA Student Senators and Representatives: https://www.msa.umn.edu/alrs-and-senators 

Council of Graduate Students: https://cogs.umn.edu/home