Friday, April 22, 2011

Traditional courses and special courses

If your 60th birthday cake is eaten and if residing in Virginia for at least one year, you can attend courses at any state institution of higher education without paying tuition and fees, such as parking. However, you must pay fees covering course materials.Any course the senior applicant qualifies to attend on a paying basis may be attended on the non-paying basis. Traditional courses and special courses (such as adult education and continuing education) are included.Northern Virginia Community College (NVCC), George Mason University (GMU) and all other state institutions of higher education conduct this free tuition program for senior citizens. Graduate and professional schools are not excluded.

A couple of general restrictions apply. The non-tuition senior can take no more than three courses each term. Tuition-paying students must be accommodated before the non-paying senior is admitted to the course; in other words, there must be space in class for the senior citizen.In some cases, academic credit toward a degree can be earned. One of those situations is where the senior had $15,000 or less in Virginia taxable income during the preceding year. The Social Security Administration reports the average monthly retirement benefit currently is $1,178. Factor in the personal exemption and deductions to reach taxable income and the potential pool of eligible seniors is sizeable.

Participating seniors often do not seek a degree. They audit courses on a part-time basis for personal reasons. These include the pure enjoyment of studying a subject of interest such as art or history, the challenge of learning to converse in a foreign language, and improvement in self-skills. The attraction for those re-entering the job market might be a course titled Preparation for Employment.According to Jessica M. Baxter, NVCC’s public affairs officer, available data for recent years show total student headcounts at about 70,000. Yet, the numbers of free-tuition senior citizens in the current year's fall and spring semesters are 514 and 612, respectively, says Michael A. Blackwell, the NVCC business manager responsible for such filings.

Senior citizen attendees at GMU present a similar picture. Current student enrollment is 32,562, according to Daniel Walsch, press officer. Of the 418 students age 60 or older, he notes that only 185 claim tuition-free attendance.Although the law has been on the books for more than 35 years, these figures suggest that benefits of the Senior Citizens Higher Education Act of 1974 are underused. The law itself requires that the program be displayed prominently in every college and university catalogue; yet, school staff admit to being unfamiliar with the statute.This general lack of awareness could explain why so few take advantage of the opportunities offered at Virginia's colleges and universities.

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