The shifting senior citizen discount for higher education


Sixty-something students take notice:

Yesterday, senators on the higher education committee discussed SF 546, a bill introduced by Chairwoman Michelle Fischbach (R-Paynesville), that would lower from 66 to 62 the age at which people are considered senior citizens — and thus can get a huge discount on tuition.

Fischbach brought forward 64-year-old Ken Kastner of St. Paul, who had been taking classes (at $25 per credit) toward a Web design certificate at St. Paul College after being laid off from AMTech Equipment Maintenance during the economic downturn. (He’d actually owned the business once, he said after the session, but had to give it up after having a stroke. He later returned to the company as a bookkeeper.)

He figured he’d keep busy with something that interested him — and make a little money free-lancing — by taking the design classes, he said. At the time he was eligible for the discount of $20 per credit, plus books and other fees. (Not a bad deal for someone on unemployment and later on reduced early Social Security benefits.)

But even with a 4.0 and 25 credits toward the certificate, he said, he was told he was no longer eligible for the program.

Now he’s at a loss, he told the committee:

“I’m 64. No one will hire me.”

He and Fischbach told the committee he wasn’t taking a seat away from other students; his slot came only after everyone else had registered. Fischbach said lowering the age to 62 shouldn’t cost the state anything, because those seats would have gone unfilled. It might even generate a tiny bit of money for the state, she said.

Sen. Sandy Pappas (DFL-St. Paul) said, however, that the program was designed for those retirees who just wanted to take the casual class to keep busy — not to start a second career.

She told him:

“You can go to community education and get computer skills. … Apply for financial aid. If you want to start a second career, more power to you.”

Sen. Kathy Sheran (DFL-Mankato) joined others in asking for an analysis of how the bill would affect the state budget — including implication for campuses and whether teachers are required to spend as much time on students such as Kastner as they do on more traditional students.

Sen. John Carlson (R-Bemidji) also asked whether the age when one collects Social Security officially defines the age at which one becomes a senior citizen.