Never Too Late: Tuition Waivers Send Seniors Back to School

Walter Block can’t talk about his college graduation without becoming emotional. When he recalls the moment he collected his diploma during UConn’s commencement ceremonies in Storrs last spring, he is reduced to tears.

“There must have been 8,000 people there,” the Stamford resident said, “and when they called out my name, it seemed as though everyone stood up and cheered.

“It was really moving and continues to be.”

Like most recent graduates, Block is proud of the accomplishment. However, unlike most recent graduates he’s not wet behind the ears preparing to go out into the real world.

At 73, the full-time Realtor is more than familiar with the real world. It was seven years ago, motivated by his dream of earning a bachelor’s degree, that he went to college and got it without paying a tuition bill.

Block was able to take advantage of a tuition waiver available to Connecticut residents ages 62 and older at the state’s public colleges and universities including the University of Connecticut (all campuses), Southern, Eastern, Western and Central, as well as many of the state’s technical and community colleges like Gateway, Capital Community, Tunxis, Three Rivers and Manchester Community College among others.

Though there are varying fees and other provisions, tuition waivers offer seniors free or low-cost access to education, something that Dr. Joel Blatt, an associate professor of history at the University of Connecticut, who teaches on the Stamford campus and one of Block’s former professors, feels is invaluable.

“I think we have an obligation to have this kind of interaction with the community,” Blatt said. “We should share what we know and I think learning as much as you can in life is important.”

Blatt said there are at least one or two seniors in his history classes each semester, and that having older adults in the classroom is beneficial not only for the adults, but for the students too. He said: “To see someone like Walter Block working as hard as they are, doing the same things they are, satisfying the same credits and requirements; seeing someone who cares so much about education … that is influential. It encourages students by example.”

Though many seniors take advantage of tuition waivers to pursue degree programs, many others use the opportunity for personal enrichment through nondegree programs and auditing classes.

tuition waiver

After learning about tuition waivers from some of her friends, retired Stamford school teacher Joyce Chavkin began taking some of Blatt’s classes several years ago after feeling less than satisfied with her understanding of history.

“I didn’t make the connections that I would have liked to make as far as history was concerned,” Chavkin explained. “In history I had the ability to memorize endless names, places, dates, but I didn’t come away with a whole lot.”

So when Chavkin decided to begin taking classes, she knew where to start.

Since then she’s taken at least four or five courses at UConn, which she said has led her to develop a passion for the subject that she never had, but one she said she’ll pursue for the rest of her days. She said: “I purposefully took a trip to Normandy [France] that I might not have done; I might not have seen where the soldiers landed on Omaha Beach. It’s a powerful experience that had you not studied about it, you might not have those feelings for it.”

And Chavkin is planning a future trip to Latin America after recently studying about it in a different class. “I wouldn’t have chosen that had I not taken these classes,” she said.

Dr. Wilson Luna, dean of student affairs at Gateway Community College in New Haven, said that the number of seniors taking classes at the college is increasing as they learn about tuition waivers. “Roughly around 100 seniors will take advantage of this because of many different reasons.”

Luna sees many advantages to the program, including access to unlimited courses and the chance to learn about a variety of subjects. “It provides them with the opportunity to take a course they may enjoy, such as baking or something that they never imagined.”

For those seeking a certificate or degree, he recommends they begin by seeking out advice from Gateway’s student counselors regarding their various programs. He also said that prospective students are required to provide proof of high school or college graduation and proof of immunization to be considered.

“[Seniors] are very much a part of the Gateway student body,” Luna said, and went on to say that they bring their knowledge and experiences to the classroom environment.

There are a few caveats to keep in mind for anyone interested in taking advantage of tuition waivers. Most institutions that offer them allow seniors to audit or take not-for-academic-credit classes based on available space and some require the permission of the instructor.

So if the desired class is already full or the professor isn’t accepting audit students, enrolling with a tuition waiver isn’t an option.

Additionally, students taking classes for credit or a degree have different registration options that vary from school to school. Some require senior students participating with a tuition waiver to sign up on the last day of registration and others are assigned a registration date that’s dependent on the amount of earned credits and the program they are enrolled in.

While tuition is waived for most courses (with some exceptions depending on the program), there are still fees associated with materials, supplies, labs and other course requirements. And textbooks, for the most part, are not provided and must be purchased by the student.

According to Block, the costs to obtain his degree from UConn were minimal. “There were some fees that any student would pay and books,” he said, “but it was less than negligible.”

With his newly minted bachelor’s degree, Block is doing some substitute teaching in addition to his day job; something he wouldn’t have been able to do without it.

“It was always on my bucket list,” he said. “If I could live my life over, I would have been a history teacher, but all in all, I have no regrets.”

Further information on tuition waivers can be found on the various state university or college websites or by contacting the institutions directly.

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