HITTING THE BOOKS Florida Seniors 60 or Older Happily Enroll in Courses at State Universities for Free

Article excerpt

It's morning, the middle of August, 95 degrees and rising.

You can see the air. It's gauzy streaks in the pines, and it's not a pretty sight.

"We breathe that stuff?" A man asks nobody as he makes a fanning motion across his face, like waving off a buzzing fly. He is one of a knot of people waiting on the plaza outside the registration office at the University of North Florida, waiting for the door to open. A few of the waiters nod, mumble agreement.

All are seniors. Not as in academia, freshman, sophomore, junior, senior. Everyone in this senior group is 60 or older, early birds waiting to sign up to audit courses at UNF on a space-available basis. Any course in the catalog. Free.

"A few are always waiting for us when the doors open. They want to get the courses they're interested in before they fill up," says Deborah M. Kaye, director of enrollment services and admissions at UNF.

The program that offers free tuition to Florida seniors at state universities began in 1980, a gesture of a senior-citizen-friendly legislature.

Tuition at UNF is $227.49 for a three-credit-hours course, for non-senior students taking classes for credit or auditing classes. So savings for seniors add up quickly and substantially. Books and supplies are not covered.

There's no stampede of seniors at UNF. Attendance averages 60 to 65 students during fall and spring semesters, fewer in summer, out of a student population of 12,000.

Kaye says that the program has not been promoted, so people find it mainly by word of mouth.

Norma Tasman, who takes part in the program, wishes it were better advertised, in fact. "That's about my only criticism," she said.

She went to college in Brooklyn, retired as a supervisor from the New York City secondary education system.

She is registered for a course in astronomy this semester.

Last semester on campus, she took archaeology.

"We're working through the A's," she said and her friends, Jesse and Rachel Halpern, agreed. They are also New Yorkers. Halpern is an ophthalmologist. Rachel Halpern, who went to Queens College, is a retired teacher.

The three agreed that they enjoy the contact with the younger students, but it is not intense.

"They have a different agenda," Halpern said. "Grades."

At first, Louise Justice Pass wondered how much interaction with her professors and the traditional students taking classes for credit was appropriate for someone auditing the course, for free.

"I didn't know whether I should participate, or whether I should sit in the back and pipe down," she said. "I've decided whatever you do is OK."

Kaye agreed.

Auditing students need not take tests or write papers, but they may talk if they're inclined, or not if that's their choice.

Kaye said seniors are free to treat the university's offerings as a sampler.

Choices are mainly for self-enrichment or personal interest, she said.

That may range from art and music and literature to philosophy and financial planning. …