The charge for many senior citizens classes will quadruple starting later this month, and instructors and students fear the higher fees will result in too few students to continue some courses.
The classes, conducted at the Florence Bain Senior Center for county residentsover age 60, have been offered by Howard Community College at a $5 fee for nearly a decade. School officials blame state budget cuts for forcing them to hike the fee to $20 for the 20-hour courses.
A group of students has submitted a petition to the school protesting the increased fees, and many students say they expect enrollmentto drop when the spring programs begin Jan. 22.
Already, administrators have trimmed the spring course offerings to 16 from the usual 18 in anticipation of some reduced enrollment.
The students have been fairly upset, said Donna Landsman, program coordinator for the senior center. "Most of them are on a limited budget, so even if $20 isn't that bad for one class, some of them take three or four classes."
Courses are offered in such diverse areas as aerobics, crafts andSpanish. About 350 older adults have filled the approximately 800 student spots in recent years.
"I expect there will be a problem getting (enough) students in all classes," pottery teacher Jean Miller said.
The price increase is likely to strain the purses of many students, she said: "It's not a lot in terms of how much the outside world has to pay, but it is a lot in terms of what they are used to."
Aerobics teacher Linda Makofski said she feared not enough students would enroll for the coming semester to maintain her * classes. "A lot of them are on fixed incomes and many take more than one class," she said. "They can't afford it."
Her students agreed.
Student Clara Caudill of Columbia said she suspected enrollment would drop so low that Makofski would be unable to continue teaching three afternoons per week. "Just one class doesn't help the seniors at all," she said. "Here they want people to be healthful and they take things away from them."
Teresa Balchun of Columbia, also an aerobics student, said the tuition increase will be a financial hardship for many of herclassmates. "None of us like the price increase," Balchun said. "We thought $20 is too much over the $5 because some of us take three or four classes."
"Some are debating taking the class because they just can't afford it," Balchun added. The college, which is losing $217,000 due to state budget cuts, says it is no longer able to absorb the cost of the classes; it must pass the expense on to the students, said Helen Mitchell, associate dean of continuing studies.
The old $5 fee covered HCC administrative costs. Due to the change in state support, the increased tuition fee will be used to pay the instructors.
State law exempts senior citizens from all tuition fees, whetherthe courses are taught at the community college or some other location. But due to the current fiscal state, Gov. William Donald Schaeferis recommending the $20 fee for each class seniors attend and has recalled $6.1 million statewide in community college grants.
"We arenot implementing the governor's full recommendation," Mitchell said."We are only charging the $20 fee for classes that are offered specifically to senior citizens, such as those classes offered at the Florence Bain Center, she said.
The changes are consistent with community colleges across the state, said Kathy Jones, a coordinator for the continuing education program. "The presidents of all the colleges met and decided they were going to pass on a $20 per student per classfee," she said.
Mitchell said she believes many of the students can afford the fee but object to the increase as a matter of principle.
Howard Community College is considering establishing a scholarship fund for those older adult students who cannot afford the tuition,Mitchell said.
Some students called the idea of the scholarships,replete with financial need paperwork, "ridiculous."
"People needthe money but are too proud to ask," one Columbia woman said. "I'm fearful that the the programs at the senior center will be diminishedbecause of the increased cost," she added.
The senior center runsa variety of activities, but the HCC-sponsored classes are a big attraction, Landsman said.
"We really depend on them," Landsman said."We'd be really sad if we were unable to continue them because the price is prohibitive."