A Genuine Free Lunch

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

Some people commenting on my recent post regrading the G3 Program for community colleges challenged my characterization of it as being a free community college education for some people. They contended that it really was not free; the student may not have to pay tuition, but the money for the program came from taxpayers. Therefore, it was not free because taxpayers were paying for it. That is a valid argument.

But I am here to tell you that there really is a free state program for some Virginia residents, which I suspect not many people are aware of. If you are at least 60 years old and have lived in Virginia for at least one year, you can take up to three courses per semester in a Virginia institution of higher education and not have to pay any tuition or fees. (Sec. 23.1-639 et seq., Code of Virginia)

Of course, there are some conditions:

  1. You must be accepted by the institution for admission.
  2. You cannot take the course for credit. (This is a bummer if you are  trying to switch careers at this stage of your life and need some courses for certification, but most folks at this age are just looking to take a class or two for personal growth.)
  3. The instructor or department has to approve you. (This is to keep you from taking a high-level physics course for which you are not qualified and thereby wasting everybody’s time by asking basic questions.)
  4.  Regular students, i.e. those paying tuition, have priority. They don’t want you bumping someone who is actually paying for classes.

I need to qualify my claim somewhat. It is not completely free; students are responsible for the cost of any textbooks and any fees related to materials used in class. However, since you would not be getting any credit for the course, you may just attend class and not buy the books.

Although the statute requires colleges and universities to “prominently include in its course catalog a statement of the benefits provided by this article for senior citizens,” colleges do not make it easy to find out about this program. After all, they want paying students. I took a course at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College last fall under this program. In the process of signing up, I searched the college website for information on how to apply under the program. I could not find anything. Only because I knew about the program, I knew to ask someone at the registrar’s office about it and she directed me to the location on the website. I have tried to find it on the VCU and W&M websites and it certainly is not “prominently” displayed. Only by using the “search” feature on the websites and keying in the magic words, “Senior Citizen Higher Education Act,” did I find the information that was needed.

I did run up against one of the conditions. The section of the course that was my first choice was filled and I had to to take the other section. I was told that, if I were a paying student, the department head probably would have waived the capacity limit and allowed me to enroll in it.

So, there it is — a truly free government service. The student does not have to pay for the service and no additional tax payer money is needed to provide it.