A cautionary tale
For Pamela Monroe, the decision to start college at age 42 seemed simple enough. She'd worked a series of low-wage jobs, mostly in retail. With a college degree, she figured she could land a job that paid better and was more secure.
Monroe quit her job and enrolled at the University of Arkansas in Fort Smith, her hometown. She graduated in 2005 with a bachelor's degree in rhetoric and writing, and hopes of becoming a writer of some kind. But the recession that struck the rest of the country in 2006 hit Fort Smith early in the form of layoffs and factory closings.
Monroe applied for the few professional jobs available in town, but was not hired. She continued working retail, including at Victoria's Secret, and in 2009 she decided to get a master's degree in speech pathology. This time around, she had a more concrete career plan -- she knows clinical speech pathologists who earn more than $80,000 a year.
But after just a few semesters, a family medical emergency forced Monroe to drop out. Now she finds herself in an even worse state than when she started college -- unemployed, and deep in debt. For the past few months, Monroe's mother has paid her rent.
In a manufacturing town where most of the factories are shrinking, Monroe finds her degree to be something of a liability. She no longer mentions it on job applications because she fears potential employers might think it means they have to pay her more.
"I think people don't want me now because I do have an education, and most jobs here don't require it," she says. "I owe $45,000 for something that is no use to me whatsoever."
For Monroe, becoming a middle-aged college student was a highly speculative gamble that did not pay off. With no employer to help pay her tuition, and no firm career plans for her bachelor's degree in a city where the labor market is dominated by blue-collar work, Monroe found that her plan for college didn't meet her expectations for higher income, nor did it match the hiring needs of local companies.
"To leave work and dedicate years to pay for this on your own?" says Mitchell D. Weiss, a co-founder of the Center for Personal Financial Responsibility at the University of Hartford. "That's a risk I wouldn't take."
Less risk, more reward
Like Pamela Monroe, Deidre Romeo was a single, middle-aged mother with a fairly low-paying job in a shrinking industrial city.
But Romeo also had advantages. Her employer, Abbott, pays up to $5,000 in tuition reimbursement for workers returning to school. Romeo also was aggressive about applying for scholarships. She was able to graduate from Granite State College at age 43 with a bachelor's in business management and "minimal" student loans, Romeo says.
The degree boosted Romeo's career immediately. She was promoted from an executive assistant to become global communications manager for Abbott. Now Romeo is three semesters away from obtaining her MBA, and she is considering an associate's degree in engineering. Both degrees could help her advance even further up Abbott's corporate ladder, possibly including a move to the company's office in Shanghai.
"It's paid off financially and in terms of personal satisfaction," says Romeo. "I don't worry about paying my bills now."
Many middle-aged people might feel they have disadvantages compared with traditional college students in terms of higher living expenses, children and greater time demands. But Romeo's example shows a key advantage that many middle-aged students enjoy: the ability to find an employer that will help pay for continuing education.
"For middle-age students, ideally you want to go to school on someone else's dime," says Weiss. "You don't want to do it speculatively, taking all this risk yourself and hoping it's going to turn out."
The changing face of college
As millions of middle-aged students decide that college is a risk they're willing to take, the face of college is gradually changing. Columbus State Community College in Columbus, Ohio, has seen the number of students age 50 and older jump by 28% to almost 1,500, the fastest-growing age group.
With so many older students enrolling, "Our median age has gone up the last couple years, for the first time that anyone can remember," says Will Kopp, a spokesman for the college.
Edie Charles, 46, plans to graduate from Columbus State in 2013 with an associate's degree in criminal justice before moving on to a bachelor's from Ohio University. Charles works for the Ohio Department of Transportation, which reimburses all of her tuition and textbook costs.
As a state employee for the past 23 years, Charles will be eligible to retire at age 53. After that, she's hoping the degree will help her establish a second career as a criminal investigator.
That transition will be made easier because she will graduate with no student loan debt. Without support from her employer, Charles probably never would have returned to college.
"As a single parent, I'm fortunate to have a stable job and make a decent living," Charles says. "But I don't know if I'd do it if I had to incur loan debt at this point in my life."
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In order to get applicants who can read, write and do basic math a business almost always has to insist on a Bachelors degree. When I retired from the military I was denied jobs because of my lack of a degree. I got the degree but was astounded that many of my seniors were dumber than a box of rocks.
Too much shame goes with a Blue Collar job, so people who would shine and be happy in these jobs end up doing something they don't understand or like. I have worked with my hands and my brain (Hopefully always with both). The frustration and politics that went with a White Collar job seemed harder than the physically demanding job, until I reached 50. Now I pay everyday for many hours on a tractor. Maybe we should teach out children to respect the efforts of the people who work with their hands.
I struggled with the lack of a degree for 25 years in an occupation (Information Technology) that favored college graduates, and did pretty well despite the lack of a degree.
I finally became frustrated with fighting the system, got out of corporate IT, started my own software company, had good employees, made a very good living, had a lot of fun, ultimately sold the company, and retired young.
One could say that not going to college was an advantage in my career.
That said, not going to college is one of my deepest regrets.
Forget the management degree...they are a dime a dozen. Get into the medical field....nurse,Xray tech etc.....
Makes you mobile and there is always a shortage which makes it easier to land a job.
I don't think a college degree automatically equates to a "good job" anymore. That's BS. You have to be extremely careful now as there are worthless degrees and it doesn't matter if you are 18 or 88.
As an older person, you don't have as much time to pay off all that debt either, so do your research.
The primary problem is people borrowing vast sums of money to get degrees in fields where there are either no jobs, or low pay. And it is their own fault that they are in the position they are in. And they will hate me and anyone else that tells them that they were educated beyond their intelligence.
I worked part time during the school year, full time in the summers, as a roofer to pay for school. It sucked to work that hard and still be so poor I had to live on raman noodles, etc. But I graduated with NO DEBT. You just have to want it, people.
DONT take my income taxes and use it to pay off other peoples student loans. It will not help them. Cause they wont have learned. And it will be a terrible example for current and future students. They will expect handouts too. Bad idea all the way around.
Possessing a degree does not guarantee greater literacy skills or greater salaries. I've worked with college educated people all my life and have been as productive if not more than most. If returning to school is the desire than pursue it for sound reasons recognizing that there are no quarantees in life. Not having a degree may affect you when looking for a job; very few employers even consider looking outside the box and allow work experience/skillset to substitute for a degree. But having a degree doesn't entitle one to the job of their chosing either; it's not a magic pill for employment.
OK. Let me think about this... You quit your job and went to school and obtained a BA in rhetoric and writing... ???
I am sorry, it may be a really desirable degree, but I don't understand the career path aspirations of a person who majors in rhetoric and writing. It may be a passion and there are jobs out there for writers, but it just doesn't sound like a sensible plan to me.
I knew a person who majored in English and didn't want to teach. -Became an officer and did well, but that is hardly an option for somebody with a few miles on them. In the end, there is surely more to the story than this. Otherwise it is a cautionary tale of the obvious. Choices have consequences.
I really feel for Pamela, but it sounds an awful lot like a lot of kids that I deal with. -They go to school with no plan in mind and no direction to their ambition. Is it a complete surprise that somebody who courts failure achieves their goal?
it's unstated what these people majored in. although i assume Romeo got an engineering degree and masters at an engineering company. WHAT would a part time clerk at Victoria's Secret major in?
choices people - along with PLANNING. thinking can be hard but it is required to survive.
Using a 529 plan is about the 2nd worst thing you can do next to putting your money under the bed. These plans are advertised only because they benefit someone else more than they benefit you. Get a good financial planner please!
***There is almost no way anyone will be able to make an adequate living any longer without SOME type of training after high school. Most high schools no longer teach any of the blue collar trades so one must get Vocational Training after school. Even auto mechanics cannot work without additional education and certification."""
I've been here myself after I developed a health problem at age 30 that ruined my career in broadcast. Single, living alone and homeowner, I had to keep working. Denied unemployment, I had enough savings to see me through my education plans along with a fantastic part-time job I lined up in my desired field.
Decided to return to school, looking forward to it actually. Medical problem made studying for long periods of time on complicated subjects (chemistry, physics, calculus, stats) impossible.
Chose to get a certifcation or associates in same subject at Junior College.
1. Junior college holds financial aid over my head threateningly each school year. I have to grovel for federal student aid because I already have a Bachelor's degree plus I paid cash for some classes for personal enrichment during better times.
2. Quality of Junior College program was poor, terrible teaching, online 'classes' used for difficult technical subjects, bad teacher attendance, no teaching with videos doing all the work...
Stuck with $4K more in debt. There would no NO way to get a job in this field on just this certification alone.
I see adult college education worthwhile in some situations.
1. Laid off from big employer in a small town or all such work has left town. Attending school paid for by govt while getting unemployment check then leaving area if you cannot find a job in your small town could be a good option.
2. Employer pays for continuing education. Terribly, I have worked at some very financially competitive corporations who have 'Tuition Reimbursement' listed as a job benefit but refuse to honor this or even admit its existance.
3. One must give thought to availability of jobs in desired field of study -- history degrees and english one can only work with a master's degree in order to teach or seek additional teaching degree to teach primary or secondary school. Only other use for english degree is working as a copy editor. Lots of insurance agents, retail managers, sales people, etc have english degrees. One cannot practice Social work and psychology without a Masters degree.
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