Parents take advantage of free classes

In many evening classes, especially languages and business courses, it’s not unusual to see middle-aged adults seated alongside students young enough to be their children. According to the registrar, 84 parents of undergraduates signed up for free classes this fall.

Among them were Steve and Mary Kulseth, parents of sophomore Chris and junior Diane.

The Kulseth couple is taking a third Spanish course together and the classes have already changed one part of the family’s interaction.

“They’re always trying to speak Spanish with us,” Diane Kulseth said. “My brother and I took Spanish all through high school. But my dad had never learned it and my mom’s Hispanic. Now we can all talk together [in Spanish].”

Parents of St. Thomas students can take up to eight free undergraduate credits per semester for each son or daughter enrolled full time, not including additional expenses such as lab fees. Many parents choose to audit courses, which do not award a grade or credit. But some do pursue an undergraduate degree.

“After they get done paying for their kid’s degree, [parents] just switch their money into their own education,” said registration coordinator Carol Hagen. “A lot of them are already in business, or they own a business, and lots of things have changed since they were in school.”

Business classes in accounting, real estate and management are among the most popular courses taken by parents. Also popular are language and social work courses.

“Parents wish they could [take history], but they have to work during the day so their kids can go to school [at St. Thomas],” Hagen said.

Adults taking St. Thomas classes generally have more responsibilities than students less than five years out of high school, such as a full-time job or family obligations. Usually, parents have been out of school for years or decades and are unsure what to expect when they return to the classroom. While auditing, adults don’t have to worry about accumulating points on Blackboard, but those learning for credit are held to the class’ grading standards.

Food service worker Harriette Peoples takes a language class after work for credit. Although her daughter graduated from St. Catherine’s, full-time employees who have worked for at least one year are granted eight credits of fully reimbursed St. Thomas tuition per semester, the same as parents.

Peoples says computer proficiency and the emotional distance of classmates are hurdles not shared by younger peers. For many adults, professional demands are expected to take priority over academics.

“Being a worker here, my job comes first,” Peoples said. “A lot of times when I leave here, I’ve done my work and half of my students’ work, and I’m tired. I guess I’ve got something to prove.”

Although the program is announced to parents during freshman orientation, Hagen said many parents aren’t aware of the free education available while their child attends and wish they had learned about the perk sooner.

“As long as my parents aren’t in my class, it’s not a problem,” said freshman Lauren Crawford, who says adults are sometimes more likely to ask questions in class. “They’re just like big kids.”

Parent-on-campus registration forms must be completed online every semester to ensure parents are not charged tuition. Qualifying parents can take any undergraduate class on a space-available basis. Class availability and forms are posted online in the registrar section of St. Thomas’ Web site.

Zack Thielke can be reached at