Lifelong learning: Older students' experience adds to classroom

Posted: Wednesday, February 16, 2011

When students returned to Kenai Peninsula College last month, the corridors were more crowded than any prior semester.

Photo By M. Scott Moon
Photo By M. Scott Moon
Jim Fisher, second from left, shares a laugh Tuesday afternoon with Heather Rasch, professor Alan Boraas and Kluane Pootjes at the conclusion of an anthropology class at Kenai Peninsula College.

But missing from the swarm of scholars was one population: seniors citizens.

Jim Fisher, an 83-year-old student at the college, said he's noticed the decreasing number of people his age in the classes he takes.

"There don't seem to be as many seniors as we used to have," he said.

This semester, he's the only person older than 60 in Anthropology of Religion, which has about a dozen students. But there are plenty of students who are middle-aged in the class, which he defines as "older than 30."

Fortunately for Fisher, he's used to being among the oldest in a class, and he's there to learn.

"I really like to hear the comments of other students," he said, adding that he's careful to let others weigh-in first so he doesn't dominate the discussion. His younger classmates treat him with the same respect, he said. They're courteous and cordial.

"I don't think they consider me a living legend," he added. Just an elder.

But some, including administrator Bill Howell, think that the younger students are missing out when older students aren't in the classroom.

"We thought having lots of senior citizens in the classroom was very valuable," he said. Older students add a different perspective to the classes they take, he added.

Fisher isn't being modest when he says that instructors sometimes thank him for the life experience he brings to the classroom.

He was a member of the first state legislature, and has been involved in community affairs on the Peninsula since 1961, he said. The term paper he wrote for an Alaska history class revolved around his experience in the House of Representatives in 1959. He worked on that paper some more in another class. And then it was published, first by the Kenai Historical Society and later the Alaska Bar Association.

"It was factual, it was actual, it was what they were looking for," Fisher said.

Fisher doesn't always study what he knows. His first class at KPC, a decade ago, he hoped would help him grapple with recent life events.

"My wife died in the year 2000 and that fall I took a class called 'Death and Dying' at the college," he said.

There were 18 in the class, including one other who had recently lost a loved one. The two were able to contribute to the discussion often.

"I found it helpful and most interesting," Fisher said.

Where did all the gray hair go?

The numbers support Fisher's observation that fewer seniors are enrolling at KPC.

This semester, just 41 students older than 60 are in classes at any of KPC's campuses. For the last few years, the number has usually ranged from 80-120.

Despite the declining number of seniors, overall enrollment at the college is up.

"Our head counts are up, our numbers are up," Howell said. "Last fall, we were up 10 percent from the previous fall."

The number of graduates has had a similar increase. In 2001, 53 students graduated. In 2010, 126 received a diploma. Howell didn't know exactly how many seniors have graduated from KPC.

"We don't really track the demographics of our graduates," he said, adding that it is "rare" for a senior to be pursuing a degree.

Most, like Fisher, take a class at a time.

And those are just the numbers of enrolled seniors. Fewer than that receive the free tuition once afforded to elders, Howell said.

Statewide, the overall increase is a little more gradual, but the decrease in seniors has been more dramatic. In fiscal year 2006, 632 students enrolled in a course at the University of Alaska. In fiscal year 2010, which ended last June, just 222 students enrolled.

Howell said he thinks the decrease started in 2005.

Before the change, Alaska residents 60 years old or older were eligible for a tuition waiver.

"On Sept. 21, 2005, the Board of Regents changed the rules," he said.

The new rules require that seniors be eligible for Social Security retirement benefits before they get free tuition, Howell said. But the minimum age for social security retirement for those who were younger than 60 in 2005 is 66. That means that since the new rule went into play, no new seniors became eligible for the program, because no one who was 59 or younger at the time has turned 65 yet.

"They fixed the pool for six years," Howell said.

Originally, then-president Mark Hamilton suggested doing away with the waivers entirely. According to a meeting recap released after the decision was made, Hamilton proposed the adjustment to the senior waiver program in an effort to control costs.

Fisher said he disagreed with the changes at the time.

"Mark Hamilton got bad advice," he said. "He created a firestorm."

After hearing public opposition to that plan, Howell said the regents looked at ways to cut the number of students taking advantage of the benefit.

The Social Security age-requirement was a middle ground. The regents also grandfathered in anyone who was already 60, and raised tuition for all students at the September 2005 meeting.

UA representative Kate Ripley said that change was just one factor in the declining senior enrollment. The economy also factors in, because seniors still have to pay for fees and textbooks, she said. Plus, increased enrollment overall makes it harder for seniors to find an open slot the day classes begin, which is when they're allowed to register.

Howell noted that while overall enrollment has gone up, part-time enrollment has not increased, and seniors usually fall into the part-time category. Most, like Fisher, take a class or two at a time.

And although he didn't support the change, Fisher said he would still be taking classes even if he had to pay out of pocket -- not surprising, since he won the school's life-long learner award in 2008.

Challenges, and a change on the horizon

The changes also created another difficulty for seniors, Fisher said. Seniors have to wait until day one to register, a rule meant to ensure that other students don't loose out on space in a crowded class. As a result, Fisher said he always has three to five courses that he thinks he might want to take and then sees which one has an opening when he's allowed to enroll.

"Up until this year, when I got registered for anthropology of religion, I never did get my first choice," he said.

Besides waiting until classes start to sign up, he said the registration process isn't too complicated. Seniors show up in person to hand in their registration and take advantage of the free tuition.

"Just the timing is bad."

The registration difficulties are in addition to the challenges every student faces.

"It's a commitment," he said. "And if you're ready to take advantage of it you have to do what I do, which is show up for class."

Once he took an online class from Clark Fair about media and society. It was difficult.

"He treated me like a regular student," Fisher said. "He worked me too damn hard."

Despite the difficulties, Fisher might not be the only 83-year-old in the room when he shows up for class next January.

Howell said that senior enrollment could swing back up, because the first wave of seniors will start turning 66 in September. That would make them eligible for classes next the spring, since eligibility is based on a person's age at the start of the semester.

"I think we will see the enrollment go back up," Howell said.

Molly Dischner can be reached at

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