Should senior citizens who can pay for classes at Gila Community College receive a discount because of their age?
The brewing debate began at a recent meeting when the board tabled a discussion of several options drawn up by chairman Bob Ashford, released the day of the meeting.
Members tabled the debate because they didn’t have time to examine the five scenarios, one of which included doing nothing. Currently, those aged 65 and older pay 25 percent of tuition and those aged 60 to 64 pay half.
Seniors, who previously received free tuition after the age of 55, revolted against increased costs this semester, which included not only reduced waivers but also 30 percent higher tuition. Enrollment among those aged over 55 dropped by 14 percent this semester from last spring.
Seniors accounted for half of the college’s enrollment last spring.
Some board members see senior tuition waivers as a way to attract students and increase state aid while others wonder why taxpayers should subsidize tuition for the demographic which can most easily afford to pay for classes.
“It’s a moneymaker,” said Ashford. “That’s why it was in place initially.”
However, board member Tom Loeffler said he called other community colleges in the state and found that most don’t offer incentives for seniors to attend.
“To go backwards I think we are going the wrong way,” he said.
Although the tuition hike helped the college leap from a deficit to a small year-end surplus, officials fear Gila will ultimately lose money because the state allots funding based on full-time enrollment.
Eastern has not quantified this loss. However, Loeffler calculated that Gila will see a net loss of $27,000 just from seniors leaving the Wellness Center, even after a $31,000 gain in tuition.
Among Ashford’s proposals, two included free tuition for those aged 60 and older. One of those would have required anyone under 60 to pay full tuition, and the other offered half tuition to those aged 55 to 59.
A third option included free tuition for those 65 and older, and a fourth included free tuition for those 55 and up.
Since the college’s early days, officials have debated the ethics of attracting older students with free or reduced tuition.
Although Gila has always offered an incentive while under Eastern, the college didn’t offer the program under Pima Community College, which Gila briefly contracted with several years ago.
When Gila officials explained the waivers to Pima, “They advised, ‘what you want us to do is unethical at best, and at worst, it’s fraudulent,’” former county manager Steve Besich said in 2004, according to county meeting minutes.
The quandary arises from collecting state money for students who aren’t paying tuition.
“There is no benchmark for achievement. You’re enrolling students in the same class, year after year, semester after semester, and in some cases five and six years in the same class,” Besich said at the time.
Six years later, the debate is rising again.
Board member Larry Stephenson didn’t say at the meeting how he felt, only that he wanted more time to examine the options. “We’ve had moments literally to think about this,” he said.
Ashford told him that board members “should be doing their homework.” He added, “We have brought this up on numerous occasions.”
Loeffler, however, said he thought the board should honor a previous decision to offer need-based scholarships to seniors who can’t afford tuition.
Senior Dean Stephen Cullen told the board, after it approved the scholarships, that the college couldn’t afford them.
Loeffler also said the board should re-examine the tuition schedule before addressing senior waivers because one affects the other.
At the meeting, the board also tabled talks on regular tuition.