OLDER AND WISER

Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD -- Law clerk Linda Scaife, who earned a free law degree from Southern Law Center, said she plans to start her law career in earnest next summer after taking the bar exam. Scaife said she plans to work with low-income people who generally have a tough time navigating the legal system.
Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD -- Law clerk Linda Scaife, who earned a free law degree from Southern Law Center, said she plans to start her law career in earnest next summer after taking the bar exam. Scaife said she plans to work with low-income people who generally have a tough time navigating the legal system.

At age 63, Linda Scaife said she’s lived a long, full life raising two children, working as a geophysical analyst and, later, as an elementary school teacher.

Forty years after receiving a degree in elementary education, Scaife has gotten her second wind and is about to embark on another career — this time as a lawyer.

One remarkable thing about her law degree is that she got it for free. The Southern University Law Center has a policy of waiving tuition for students age 55 and older.

That policy saved Scaife roughly $30,000.

“At my age, it would’ve been difficult to spend that money on another piece of paper,” she said. “But I’m going to do some good with it.”

Southern Law school Chancellor Freddie Pitcher described the tuition waiver as part of an effort to increase “access and opportunity.”

“And we’re just trying to follow the dictates of the Legislature,” he said.

The dictate Pitcher is referring to is a state law passed in the 1990s that mandates public colleges and universities grant students older than 55 a free ride and cut the price of their textbooks in half.

The one caveat is that the law applies only if the Legislature appropriates money to reimburse the schools. But, according to the Louisiana Board of Regents, the state panel that sets higher education policy, that funding has never materialized.

Without the funding, the decision to grant age-specific tuition waivers has been left solely up to the management boards that oversee Louisiana’s four public college systems.

The result is that schools across the state grant some type of tuition waiver to their older students. Some schools waive tuition altogether, while others offer discounted courses or one free class per semester.

Last year, Louisiana’s public colleges reported missing out on almost $2 million in tuition through discounts and waivers for students who’d reached a certain age.

At a time when the price tag for college is becoming increasingly steeper as state government continues to slash funding for higher education, some legislators are calling on schools to re-evaluate whether they should be offering tuition waivers at all.

Others see the discount as a gift schools offer to older students out of a sense of community spirit.

Larry Bankston, then a state senator, sponsored the tuition waiver law in 1990. He said recently that it was his way of including older people at a time when other groups including military veterans and the disabled were getting similar benefits.

“I wasn’t on the Appropriations Committee, so I had limited ability to get it funded, but I think this is something that’s even more appropriate now when a lot of people are looking to re-tool and start new careers,” Bankston said.

House Education Committee Chairman Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, said he is “concerned these institutions are taking it upon themselves to do this and then they turn around and ask for money. I applaud them for trying to help, but I am concerned.”

Public colleges and universities have lobbied for relief as Gov. Bobby Jindal and the Legislature have cut more than $426 million from higher education since 2008 to balance state budgets.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, said schools need to revisit their policies.

“The amount of money available for higher education is shrinking, and there is no short-term expectation of it growing,” Appel said. “This seems like a luxury to me.”

It’s unclear whether concerns from the Legislature will be enough to sway members of the state’s higher education management boards who have expressed support for the age-specific tuition waivers.

Board members representing the LSU system, the Southern University system and the University of Louisiana system all said they would be reluctant to take away a program that generally is viewed as a positive thing on campus.

Pamela Ford, the dean of enrollment management at Louisiana Tech University, defended the school’s “Tech After 55” program, which knocks the price of a $700 course down to $54.

“We’re promoters of lifelong learning; we really believe in it,” she said.

Adam Norris, a spokesman for the University of New Orleans, said the school’s “Golden Ager” program where tuition is waived for students age 65 and older is “public goodwill.”

“Part of our goal is to serve the community,” Norris said. “We also take lots of pride in having a diverse student body. Our younger students benefit from having older people with significant life experiences in class with them.”

Amanda Doyle, an administrator with the University of Louisiana at Lafayette said many of the people who participate in such programs are alumni or people who just want to take a course or two.

“We don’t feel that it’s a financial burden because we’re not enrolling hundreds of students in this,” she said. “These people are filling empty seats in a classroom. They are not taking a seat from our degree-seeking students.”

But similar programs have proven more of a burden at other schools. Southern University’s Baton Rouge campus, like the law school, has the most far-reaching, age-specific tuition waiver policy in the state — giving anyone older than 55 a free ride.

Southern’s Baton Rouge campus also lost the most money last year because of it. One hundred thirty seven students were granted waivers last year, costing the school more than $490,000 in tuition.

Southern Chancellor James Llorens said it’s time the campus revisited the policy considering the university had to declare a financial emergency, called exigency in October 2011. It followed years of declining enrollment coupled with state budget cuts. Exigency removed restrictions from downsizing staff and consolidating programs.

Llorens said the school may have to raise the age requirement in order to save money.

“We don’t want to take away opportunities now when people are working longer and trying to retrain themselves and become more marketable,” Llorens said. “But we’ll probably have to do a complete analysis and make a decision based on that. I’d really hate to get rid of it completely, especially because some people use it for personal enrichment.”

One of those people is Sherry Kirkus, 71, who received one tuition-free year at LSU at Shreveport five years ago while working on a master’s degree in counseling psychology.

“I found out about it in a roundabout way,” Kirkus said. “I had to pay the fees, but no tuition, and I just thought that was scrumptious.”

Six years later, she’s taking advantage of the University of Louisiana at Monroe policy to discount one course per semester for older students on her way to earning a doctorate in marriage and family therapy.

“I just like going to school,” she said. “And I intend to live way past 100, so this is all perfectly practical.”