Is it fair to give senior citizens college discounts?

Who should get the break?

A move to amend legislation allowing senior citizen discounts has revived talk of how fair the measure is, and raised questions about how much it would cost the state.

Legislation approved by the Senate higher education committee today would lower from 66 to 64 the age at which people can take college courses at lower-than-normal prices.

Democrats questioned the potential cost of the measure, wondering whether tuition-paying students would be bumped by seniors — and whether student fees might be higher to help cover the seniors’ discount. They and a few Republicans also asked whether younger, lower-income people should get that study opportunity instead.

Sen. Ron Latz (DFL-St. Louis Park) told the committee:

“Someone’s got to pay these costs. You could have a millionaire senior citizen who’s 62 go to a MnSCU course and have their course (subsidized) by a struggling student sitting next to him. Or the taxpayer will pay for it. … I would rather give that space to someone like a young single mother who can’t afford to go to (college).”

(Procedural note: Both chambers have already passed legislation on this issue. It’s now in both omnibus bills sitting before the conference committee. Those bills would lower the age 66 to 62, instead of 64 as this bill would. What the committee did today is amend language in a separate senior-citizen bill that could ultimately override the provisions now in the omnibus bills.)

By the end of the session it was still unclear just how much money — if any — colleges and universities lose by discounting seats for seniors.

Some legislators said the fiscal note suggested that allowing senior citizens to pay less for classes costs the state about $750,000. Some found that concerning, because seniors were only supposed to take seats not already assigned to students who paid full tuition, they said. That way, the state would make at least some money off the normally empty seats.

Yet no one had evidence of tuition-paying students being bumped by seniors, and no one at the session seemed sure how the $750,000 number was reached.

To some it didn’t seem to matter. Sen. David Brown (R-Becker) told the committee:

“This is a cost of almost $750,000 — but a savings of $750,00 for our senior citizens. I’m in favor of saving money senior citizens in this economy. If they (turn to) financial aid, then that eats up financial aid for your younger students.”

And Sen. John Carlson (R-Bemidji) said:

“Senior have been paying taxes for years. How about a little something back?”

But David Senjem (R-Rochester), while not opposing the bill, said:

“In a time of limited resources, as a society you put your investment in the front end of life. Our future is our young people.”