Published on 2013/09/16

Searching for Financial Pathways to a Degree

Searching for Financial Pathways to a Degree
Financial support is critical to helping adults prioritize earning their degree once they have work and family commitments to balance.

The Great Recession took five million jobs out of the American economy, sending a not-so-gentle reminder to the workforce that skills constantly need to be updated.

For most people, that means going back to college, either to add another degree to their resume or complete one they never finished.

Even blue-collar workers now recognize the still-evolving economy will demand more from them. A trip back to a vocational college to keep current with technological advances might be the only thing preventing them from becoming obsolete.

The Department of Education’s latest data, from 2011, indicates almost four million college students — or 21 percent of the student population — are aged 30 or older. Men in the same age range are, by far, the biggest category of students enrolled in vocational colleges.

Who’s paying for their training or re-training?

That’s the question men and women, who have been working since they were last in a classroom, are struggling to answer. They no longer have the freedom of choice and free time they had as teenagers and, in most cases, they are off Mom and Dad’s payroll.

Now they must pay their own way for basic necessities such as rent, food, utilities, medical treatment, clothing and transportation. There isn’t much cash left for a master’s degree or the last few courses needed for a bachelor of arts.

“Money has always been the issue,” said adult student Reginald Mells, a 43-year-old program manager for a transit consultant company.

Mells started and stopped his college education three times, mostly for financial reasons.

“I know I’ve got to get that degree to make myself more qualified to advance in my organization or somewhere else,” he told me. “But when you’ve got kids in school and a job to get to every day and house payments and car payments … it’s hard to find the time you need and, like you say, who’s going to pay for it? There’s no money in my budget.”

Mells was single when he started college at the age of 19. He wanted to be a computer programmer, but a year later landed a full-time job in the finance department of a local transit agency and decided to switch schools and majors.

He figured an accounting degree would be more relevant to his job, but that pursuit didn’t last long. A marriage, three children and increased job responsibilities quickly consumed his life.

Getting a degree languished on the back burner until four years ago, when he resolved to finish what he had started. The agency he worked for offered $1,000 a year in financial aid, not nearly enough to cover the tuition at the for-profit college where he was enrolled.

He filled out a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) form, but the only financial aid he qualified for was a student loan. He borrowed $30,000 to restart school, but dropped out when the burden of debt became unbearable.

“By the time I finished, I would have owed them something like $70,000 or $80,000, and that was blowing my mind,” Mells said. “I had to step back and ask myself if going back to school was really helping my career or putting me in a hole I’d never get out of.”

Fortunately, 10 months ago, he found another job and his new employer agreed to pay for the courses he needs to finish his degree. He changed majors yet again to accommodate his new position — he’ll graduate with a degree in product management — but the cost of the whole experience still weighs on him.

“I got a deferral for the $30,000 in loans, but I still have anxiety attacks worrying about paying it back,” Mells said. “That’s like making another house payment every month and I got a problem with that.

“Whoever is in charge of that FAFSA needs to revise whatever formula they’re using. If a man with a family and a job wants to go back to school to improve his position, there’s got to be a better formula that gives him a chance.”

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Readers Comments

Henrik Olsen 2013/09/16 at 12:57 pm

Reginald Mells’ story reminds us of the need to rethink assistance offerings for adult students. We need better understanding of their life situations, in particular, the reality that they often have families to support while in school. At the end of the day, when people like Reginald succeed, it’s not only his family that benefits; we benefit as a society. It’s important for us to take the long view when considering how to fund postsecondary institutions and support adult students.

Rob Young 2013/09/16 at 1:58 pm

Sounds like Mr. Mells has made a series of poor life choices — dropping out after marriage, having as many children as he did if he knew his income/educational background couldn’t support them and switching majors multiple times. I disagree with the commenter above. I don’t feel sorry for Mr. Mells at all. Perhaps we could provide him with academic advising to get his educational track sorted out, but why should any public dollars go to paying for his tuition in a program he could drop out of again (seeing his track record)? What would be the return on our “investment” in him then?

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