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I want to go back to school. Help me find grants and scholarships.
October 26, 2010 4:24 PM   Subscribe

I want to go back to school. Understatement: I'm a non-traditional student. I've been living below poverty levels for most of my life. I need funding - loans, grants, scholarships. How?

I want to be done with being the bright but severely undereducated dilettante in the room. It's long past time for me to go to school. I'm strongly considering Journalism and/or an English Literature major.

Mefites who know me would likely agree I'm well suited for this field.

Short background: High school dropout. No GED or diploma. 36+ years old. No funding or FAFSA yet. I've never registered for Selective Service.

I'm so broke I haven't officially filed for taxes in years.

The good news is I probably easily qualify for every general grant and financial aid program. I'm independent from my parents, etc. The bad news is Selective Service requirements - which I believe have expired for my age, and the other bad news is my utter lack of a financial history.

I'm not interested in going to school for "increased earning potential". I'd be an idiot to consider that an end goal for Journalism and/or Lit in this day and age. I'm not an idiot. :)

I wouldn't mind going back to school and staying there. For life. As a career. I really don't care about student loan debt, especially if it can be somehow continuously postponed by staying in school.

Tell me about:

Financial aid.
Grants.
Student loans.
How to pay for housing/living costs.
Scholarships - especially Journalism/Literature scholarships I can apply for using my essay-writing skills.

(Yes, I'm going to go speak to an admissions counselor, hopefully tomorrow or this week.)
posted by loquacious to Education (56 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
 
Fill out a FASFA. It doesn't take that long.
posted by k8t at 4:26 PM on October 26, 2010


Depending on where you're going, the school may offer school- or even department-specific scholarships that you may try to get. Do lots of research around the specific programs.
posted by brainmouse at 4:27 PM on October 26, 2010


I'm so broke I haven't officially filed for taxes in years.

This wasn't part of your question but I want to point it out anyway to help point you to a possible windfall -- if you weren't self-employed and got a W-2, it's very likely the IRS will be cutting you a check. Being low-income is a reason to file, not a reason to avoid it. If you're already aware of this, please disregard.

posted by crapmatic at 4:35 PM on October 26, 2010


Re: selective service, there's a section on this page that describes what to do if you're over 26 and didn't register. The question is whether you were required to register and failed to do so knowingly and willfully. If you can provide proof that between the ages of 18 and 26 you were ineligible or that you didn't believe you were required to register, you may be able to get a waiver.

The answers to many of your other questions depend on what school you want to attend. They'll have different financial aid policies and procedures. I'd start by figuring out what you want to study, narrowing down some schools you're interested in, and asking some of these questions of them.

Finally, as for staying in school "as a career," are you saying that you want to apply for and complete a string of postgraduate degrees and then off yourself when you get too old to keep working? Because that's basically what you'd be in for. You'd live in near-poverty your entire life, be ineligible for Social Security because you won't have paid into it, and eventually be unable to continue. And that's if you can get it paid for. Federal student loans have borrowing limits, banks won't lend to someone with no prospects for paying it back, and grad schools won't fund someone who is clearly not interested in working in their field. So no, I don't think that plan is viable.

What may be viable, depending on how bright and dedicated you are to a particular field, is going into academia. It's a very tough track to get on, but basically, if you get top grades in undergrad and have stellar academic recommendations, you go to a top grad school in your field and the university pays for it. There, you work very hard for 4-8 years on your classes, original research, and being an assistant, culminating in a book-length thesis. Then you pray that you can find a job as a professor. If you can get tenure as a professor, you can stay in school your whole life and they'll pay you a pretty decent salary and generally great benefits to teach a bunch of undergrads and grad students. Nice work if you can get it.

But that's a long way down the line. Start with undergrad. Figure out what subject interests you and what schools you think you might like to go to. Find out what their entrance requirements are for students like you (Do you need a GED? Do you have to take the SAT? Etc.). Sort out your funding. Go forward from there.
posted by decathecting at 4:41 PM on October 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yes, FAFSA is pretty straightforward. You will need to get your GED to be eligible for financial aid in any case. Community college is not all that expensive at ~$1,000 a quarter in Seattle for a full course load, but even with 100% of tuition covered by grants, it is rather unlikely that you will get money for living expenses – reconsider your willingness to take on a loan.

I wouldn't mind going back to school and staying there. For life. As a career.

That's not really what federal financial aid is for.
posted by halogen at 4:44 PM on October 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


It depends somewhat on what state you're in. For federal aid, you're technically required to have a high school diploma/GED, but this isn't a hard-and-fast rule. Some of the exemptions:
--The standard exemption is an Ability to Benefit test--these are a group of obscure tests picked out by the Department of Education. From what I can tell, there's really no advantage to taking these over getting a GED, especially since it's relatively easy to find junior colleges/community centers/state programs offering free/cheap GED testing on a regular basis.
--Schools seem to have some leeway to override this, though I'm not sure how much it varies from school to school. I got aid (despite never getting a high school diploma) throughout college, because I enrolled through a particular program run by the school. When I started grad school, one of the "loopholes" they had was to have taken a certain number of credits at the school. I wound up getting aid by asking the director of the program I'd been in to write a letter to my finaid office. Depending on your circumstances and school, there might be some similar way out.

Honestly, though, if it's practical/not a hardship for you to get a GED, I kind of recommend it. It's perfectly possible to still get aid without one, as I've outlined, but it's a massive pain, because it's assumed that you have one. The form my grad office initially sent me had checkboxes only for "High School Diploma", "GED", "ATB" and "6 credits." If you didn't fall into one of those, there was a line to sign stating that you understood you weren't eligible for aid. Trying to explain why my situation didn't fall into one of those involved a lot of waiting, bureaucracy, and headache (things that the fin-aid process already has in abundance....)
posted by kagredon at 4:53 PM on October 26, 2010


As a former student services administrator, by far the biggest hurdle will be your lack of Selective Service registration.

You will have a tremendous burden of proof to demonstrate either a) you were unaware of this requirement from ages 18-36 or b) you were unable to fulfill this requirement due to major impediment.

FASFA is not fooling around on this one, and because I worked for underrepresented students, I watched this scenario unfold quite a few times and exactly ONCE was the student approved because was able to demonstrate that because of an unstable childhood and adolescence in the foster care system he never registered. And even that took a letter from every single home he had lived in, a letter from one of his social workers who documented his instability at that time, and a statement from a high school principal that he felt it was likely this student might have missed out on this message because of moving around so much. EVEN THEN, the financial aid officer nearly denied it because another administrator pointed out that the requirement is posted in every post office in America and my student admitted to being in a post office once or twice (!)

SO. Right up front, admit to not registering so everyone knows the full picture, but hold off on talking to financial aid about it right away. If you have a documentable reason, start getting your burden of proof together. It would be good to gain the partnership of an advisor, perhaps the person on staff charged with working with non-traditional or first-generation or underrepresented students.

The financial aid officer is given, by the government, reasonable discretion (their language) to judge these matters. But financial aid is notoriously conservative and do not want to be responsible for losing their school's eligibility for making a student exception. But your changes are better if you have everything in place before you work with them--your reason, your documentation, your advisor's vouch.

This is not what I like to tell non-trads because I am a HUGE non-trad backer (yo, I am 36 myself and currently back at school for a new career). But this whole Selective Service thing is crazy serious and has ridiculous consequences. Memail me if you have more questions.

The other stuff--taxes, etc. You'll just have to back file before you FAFSA. I know, weird, right?
posted by rumposinc at 4:55 PM on October 26, 2010


"I wouldn't mind going back to school and staying there. For life. As a career. I really don't care about student loan debt, especially if it can be somehow continuously postponed by staying in school."

Before you do anything, get yourself to a financial adviser, because this statement is one of the scariest things I have heard in a long time.

As I understand it, even though you can postpone student loan payments by staying in school, all you're doing is postponing your day of reckoning. If you get student loans (Perkins, Stafford), you get a six month grace period after your first four years wherein you don't have to pay anything, but when that six months comes due, you begin to accrue significant increases in interest that you have to start paying off even if you're just taking 6 units somewhere to be a part time student. Plus, if you are in a place where you are actually so broke that you don't pay your taxes, your credit may put you into a new level of hell when it comes to what kind of loans you get once your first four years are done because then all you have access to are private loans and the interest rates on those are astronomical.

And even if you declare bankruptcy multiple times, the only way to get rid of student loan debt is to prove that you are absolutely categorically incapable of paying off that debt because you can no longer work due to injury/illness/death. You can not get rid of student loan debt in any other way.

Get someone to look at your finances with you and discuss your long term options; you could get bamboozled into taking on new debt you will never be able to pay off, and while higher education is awesome, it is not worth ruining what little credit you have left. Don't be like my classmates, who are 25-30k (and one owes $75k) in debt from college and are now chasing their tails like dogs with creditors and collection agencies on their heels all day, every day.

If anything, do what you can to get grants first (that's free money), and then go from there.
posted by patronuscharms at 4:56 PM on October 26, 2010 [5 favorites]


I had problems with that FAFSA thing when I had no income. They just don't believe you have no income. Be prepared for that, a partner who supports you, or free room and board for something, or whatever. A man I knew said he'd been a homeless alcoholic street person. If, perchance, you've been working for cash do not, repeat, do not mention it.

If you can totally ace SATs you will be golden. If you have to start out at a community college you can always move on to any other university as long as your grades are outstanding. I know this from personal experience!

If you're in Washington check out Evergreen.

And to those who make negative comments about your desire to get financial aid for as long as you can I say I'd much rather see my tax dollars pay for your education than pay for war and other evils.

Go for it, and good luck.
posted by mareli at 4:59 PM on October 26, 2010


kagredon answered: Honestly, though, if it's practical/not a hardship for you to get a GED, I kind of recommend it. It's perfectly possible to still get aid without one, as I've outlined, but it's a massive pain, because it's assumed that you have one. The form my grad office initially sent me had checkboxes only for "High School Diploma", "GED", "ATB" and "6 credits."

Interesting. I supposedly/technically have an AA in commercial design, but I'm not sure if it's accredited or if it was ever validated. It was through a ROP program that I was involved in while I was still in HS, but I'm not sure if it stuck because I got tossed from the same high school.

I shouldn't have much difficulty passing the GED, so that's on the table. I've taken the official test before and I know I aced it, but it was tossed on a technicality that's a completely immature HERP DERP moment on my part. I, uh, finished the test in 15 minutes, got bored, and started absent-mindedly doodling on the back of the test book.

decathecting answered: Finally, as for staying in school "as a career," are you saying that you want to apply for and complete a string of postgraduate degrees and then off yourself when you get too old to keep working? Because that's basically what you'd be in for.

For the extreme purposes of this argument - that would be better then offing myself, err, a while ago. :) However, much less morbidly...

What may be viable, depending on how bright and dedicated you are to a particular field, is going into academia. It's a very tough track to get on, but basically, if you get top grades in undergrad and have stellar academic recommendations, you go to a top grad school in your field and the university pays for it. There, you work very hard for 4-8 years on your classes, original research, and being an assistant, culminating in a book-length thesis. Then you pray that you can find a job as a professor. If you can get tenure as a professor, you can stay in school your whole life and they'll pay you a pretty decent salary and generally great benefits to teach a bunch of undergrads and grad students. Nice work if you can get it.

Yeah, something like that. It's not a decision I can really make until I proceed with undergrad/GE requirements and figure out what's next, but I'm bright enough. Whether or not I'm dedicated enough remains to be seen.
posted by loquacious at 5:09 PM on October 26, 2010


I think you underestimate the potential financial impact of going to school and not getting a job at the end of it. If you cannot find a way of paying for this through some combination of grants and scholarships then please, for pity's sake, for your sake, don't do this.

To be quite honest, I think you can basically kiss the idea of becoming a tenured professor goodbye. Simply being good enough isn't good enough anymore, because there are dozens of people who are good enough applying for every tenure track position. I'm also told that most academics do some of their best work, or at least the work that sets them up for the rest of their careers, in their twenties and early thirties. You're already past that. The time to pursue a career in academia was a decade and a half ago. So the idea that you can just spend the rest of your life in school strikes me as unrealistic.

If you really do want to get some sort of formal post-secondary education, I seriously suggest that you look into community colleges. Not only are they vastly cheaper than their more prestigious counterparts, but they're more likely to be set up to deal with students who are as non-traditional as you are. You'll have night classes, part-time schedules, tons of students in their thirties--and older--and a much greater willingness on the part of the administration to make their programs work for you.

Two things to categorically avoid:

1) For-profit colleges. These are worse than useless. They'll provide you with a crap education and a useless degree while charging you only slightly less than a traditional state school.

2) Student loans, particularly in connection with for-profit colleges, but also just in general. If you can't find a way to pay your school through some combination of part-time jobs and grants/scholarships, you really should think about not doing this. You've managed to make it to 36 while basically being broke. Imagine making it to 46 being less than broke, i.e. owing the bank a couple of hundred bucks a month before you can pay rent or buy food. I'm paying over $1000 a month, and even though I'm employed, it massively restricts my ability to just walk out and do my thing. I have got to have a job. As will you, if you get loans.

Look, college isn't for everyone. If you've done fine without a post-secondary degree, why spend the money? If you have a clear plan about how college will improve your life and how you're going to pay for it, then by all means, go for it. But if you don't, think long and hard before you mortgage your future for the privilege of reading some books you could have read by yourself.
posted by valkyryn at 5:55 PM on October 26, 2010 [4 favorites]


Also, the Selective Service requirement is going to be a pain in the ass. It may not be doable.

I'm assuming "I'm an agnostic-atheist pacifist who doesn't believe in violence as a solution" isn't going to cut it. Yes, I was aware of it. Yes, I willfully failed to comply. I did have a really screwed up childhood with extenuating circumstances extending into young adulthood - still do - but that's not really the root of the issue with regards to SS registration.

So, perhaps I should focus on finding scholarships and private funding? My main assets are the fact I can write a hell of an essay, give a talk and demonstrate my intelligence and willingness to learn and be scholarly.
posted by loquacious at 5:59 PM on October 26, 2010


I'm strongly considering Journalism and/or an English Literature major.

If you're planning on staying, er, indefinitely in school in either of these fields, most PhD programs kick you out after a decade or so of being ABD. And tenured jobs are disappearing rapidly. The job market is really a nightmare right now, and it's going to be much, much worse in about a decade when all those people who have fled the job market for academia are looking for jobs.

You can't outrun student loans forever. In fact, it's the one form of debt that doesn't even discharge in bankruptcy. Honestly, your plan kind of gives me hives just thinking about it.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:15 PM on October 26, 2010




I've known several people who went back to school and got PhDs and tenure track jobs in their late 40s. So this situation would be a little older and starting from a little less (the folks I knew had worked in industry) but not totally outside the realm of possibility. And who knows what the job market will look like in 10 years.

posted by leahwrenn at 6:16 PM on October 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


"I really don't care about student loan debt, especially if it can be somehow continuously postponed by staying in school."

I believe this is stealing, but if you don't find it morally objectionable to borrow thousands of dollars of someone else's money, without intending to ever pay it back, then more power to you.

I think in Sweden, university education is free, even for foreigners. This might not be correct information, and I'm too lazy to look it up.
posted by Beardsley Klamm at 6:17 PM on October 26, 2010


I believe this is stealing, but if you don't find it morally objectionable to borrow thousands of dollars of someone else's money, without intending to ever pay it back, then more power to you.

Point, and I need the brutally honest answers. I've worded that poorly, and it's unrealistic. I would rather do it without crippling debt.
posted by loquacious at 6:26 PM on October 26, 2010


And who knows what the job market will look like in 10 years.

If you're a reasonably bright person, you can extrapolate what the academic job market might look like by current graduate school admissions practices--number of applicants, etc. Then take a look at what the current job market is like. Ask some academic to borrow their MLA log-in to look for job postings. Keep in mind that every adjunct and temporary position (not to mention every funded grad student) represents one fewer tenured and/or benefited position. Look at the wages for non-tenured positions and keep in mind that those haven't really gone up much in a decade or so, and that one often has to teach about 5 classes to make anything approaching a living wage, and that's not factoring in the costs of health care and paying back your loans.

I have a graduate degree in English (MFA), debt, and am currently not working in academia because it's impossible to find a full time job. Really, it's a nightmare out there. I had professors who went back to school as adults, too, but they were graduating from their grad programs in the 90s, when it was a different universe. The chances that this is a viable way to outrun student loan debt are . . . small, to say the least.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:27 PM on October 26, 2010


Before you meet with an admissions counselor, I think it would really help if you thought through your goals a little bit more.

You dismiss the plan for "increased earning potential" pretty cavalierly due to your interests in the humanities. I don't think you really understand the purpose of today's undergraduate education - the subject doesn't matter so much. The degree, the implied competence and responsibility that go with that degree, and maybe a nice gpa, are the product of an undergraduate education. Increased earning potential is the entire point of going into thousands of dollars in debt for a bachelors degree.

I can tell you that unless you find a rich benefactor who wants to essentially sponsor your education, you are probably going to have to accrue some debt through loans. You are a really smart dude, but grant and scholarship programs for someone in your situation just aren't gonna cut it.

Which brings me to my point: goals? If you are just looking to be more educated, why would you go through all of the bullshit and cost that comes with an undergrad education? Why not take courses you are interested in from all over the place, rather than be forced to follow a program that is not going to inspire you?

There is a lot of support for non-traditional students like yourself, but I think you have to be a little bit more realistic. Most people don't get to go to school for free indefinitely because they'd enjoy it.
posted by Think_Long at 6:41 PM on October 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


You will not get a job in academia.

You will NOT get a job in academia.

I'm not saying this to be discouraging. I'm sure you're a bright and talented person. I'm just pointing out that if you think you are going to step over the unemployed bodies of millions of English Lit and Journalism majors, many of whom would give serious thought to contract killing in exchange for a tenure track job, you just aren't. Ever. Ever. Sorry.

If you want to learn something new in college, meet interesting people, have experiences that change you as a person, yes, go for it. But if you think you can sign up for crushing eternal debt in exchange for a utopian lifestyle, you are doomed. Truly Doomed. Like, Hieronymus Bosch flayed flesh hellscape horror blood squirt forever and ever truly truly DOOMED.

I suggest getting an AA with fully transferable credits to the state university system. And While you're there, work for the IT department and learn some goddamn PHP. Because journalism? HOO Boy!
posted by zota at 6:54 PM on October 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


A lot of people in this thread are posting answers based on outdated information.

As long as you stick to FEDERAL (not private!!!) student loans, you can indeed keep them in deferment forever as long as you are going to school at least half-time.

If you finally get sick of taking classes and racking up degrees, you can then sign up for Income-Based Repayment of your loans. Your payments will be limited to 15% of your discretionary income (the difference between your adjusted gross income and 150% of the federal poverty line for your family size).

Furthermore, if you go into a "public service" career (government, nonprofit, education, or health care), then after 10 years of payments you can have the remaining balance forgiven under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.

None of this is "stealing," it is merely responding to financial incentives deliberately created by Congress. And speaking of things that Congress deliberately decides to spend taxpayer money on -- even if you were to rack up the maximum possible federal student loan debt ($60,000 Perkins + $138,500 Stafford) and never repay it, it would still be insignificant compared to how much the US government spends on killing people or bailing out Wall Street gamblers.
posted by Jacqueline at 7:00 PM on October 26, 2010 [10 favorites]


As long as you stick to FEDERAL (not private!!!) student loans, you can indeed keep them in deferment forever as long as you are going to school at least half-time.

It is, however, difficult to stay in school forever, unless you don't mind, say, paying for community college classes equal to half-time, or the like.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:03 PM on October 26, 2010


"It is, however, difficult to stay in school forever"

Not really. Universities are constantly inventing new bullshit Masters degrees that are easy to get into (especially with the explosion in online education), and once you're in graduate school, you can start tapping into Grad PLUS loans to keep paying your way after you've maxed out your Perkins and Stafford options.
posted by Jacqueline at 7:11 PM on October 26, 2010


Also, to everyone worrying about the OP's credit, financial future, etc., even if you don't have time to read the OP's entire MetaFilter history, please at least go back and re-read the third sentence in his post:

"I've been living below poverty levels for most of my life."

I'm pretty sure in this particular case, the "poverty" of the permastudent lifestyle will be a step up.
posted by Jacqueline at 7:15 PM on October 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


As long as you stick to FEDERAL (not private!!!) student loans, you can indeed keep them in deferment forever as long as you are going to school at least half-time.

Federal loans have the previously discussed Selective Service requirement.

None of this is "stealing," it is merely responding to financial incentives deliberately created by Congress. And speaking of things that Congress deliberately decides to spend taxpayer money on -- even if you were to rack up the maximum possible federal student loan debt ($60,000 Perkins + $138,500 Stafford) and never repay it, it would still be insignificant compared to how much the US government spends on killing people or bailing out Wall Street gamblers.

Please don't go into debt as a political statement.

For whatever reason, students don't consider school loans in the same way they consider private loans. This is still real money, with real interest and very very very long repayment periods.
posted by Think_Long at 7:17 PM on October 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Setting aside the financial repercussions that may or may not matter to you for a moment, my problem with the mind set that you can just stay in school with loans in perpetuity is that you are setting out to undermine the system, making it harder and less feasible for others to access it. In general, federal funding, scholarships and grants, for higher education are really meant to give more people the chance to accumulate and contribute to a public good - education. If you are going to tap into it- great! But your plan to just sit on it forever without contributing to society in any sort meaningful way outside your own development and learning is, IMHO selfish.

I applaud your desire to learn for its own sake, but venturing into academia aimlessly with no particular plan to exit, on the public's dime, is a good argument for abolishing funding for higher education altogether.
posted by goodnight moon at 7:55 PM on October 26, 2010


Anyhow, both my aunt and cousin are financial aid officers at a university in Washington, so I just sent them a Facebook message asking them what your options might be with regards to the Selective Service issue.

FinAid.org notes that an important criteria is, "did the student have the mental capacity to choose whether or not to register and decided not to register?" It might take some pride-swallowing to go that route, but I think you could make a very strong case that your medical issues and life circumstances left you with a diminished mental capacity to remember to file a form.

Also, it sounds like the final decision is made at the school financial aid office level. If one school says no, there are literally thousands of other colleges and universities out there. One of them will say yes!!!
posted by Jacqueline at 7:56 PM on October 26, 2010


"you are setting out to undermine the system, making it harder and less feasible for others to access it"

Not true. In fact, the trend over the past few years has been that Congress is making it easier and easier for people with student loan debt to defer payment, make lower payments, or have portions of their loans forgiven. It appears they have effectively set up a new form of "progressive" income taxation -- if your college education pays off and you make a lot of money you have to pay your loans back in full, but if it doesn't and you don't then you can just make tiny, income-based payments for the rest of your life (or 10 years if you are in the very broad category of "public service" jobs).

"But your plan to just sit on it forever without contributing to society in any sort meaningful way outside your own development and learning is, IMHO selfish."

I think loquacious has already contributed quite a lot to "society" just through all of the thoughtful, expressive, informative writing he gives away for free via this very site. I can't wait to see what he writes after he gets a PhD or three. :)
posted by Jacqueline at 8:08 PM on October 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


To paraphrase Hubert Selby, Jr.: you know the alphabet. Maybe you can be a writer.

Fuck college. Write a goddamn book.

You know what people do in college? The good ones do what they're told and come out saddled with debt and hoping for an internship so they can slave away for some old tool in the hopes of grasping a rust-rotted rung on the corporate ladder. The bad ones fart around on daddy's money and slink back home to take over the family business that they'll run into the ground with bad paper and cocaine before hanging themselves in the garage on Christmas morning.

Fuck that.

Write.
The.
Book,
Loquacious.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 8:14 PM on October 26, 2010 [13 favorites]


First, again, I worded my statements about loans/debt poorly. I fully intend to "contribute something to society." In many ways I already have, when I've had nothing but basic white male privilege . It's in my nature to want to fix things and contribute.

It would be better if I had worded it as "How do I make school pay for itself?" or something.

Second - I'm interested in going back to school to develop real intellectual vigor and educational discipline. I haven't firmly decided on Journalism as a major, but I want to get much, much deeper into writing. I want to fill the holes in my spotty and lax self-education that's more of a result of dumb luck and a natural sponge-like ability to absorb knowledge.

I want to be able speak with authority, with more clarity and with more rigorous thinking. I want to be challenged. I don't particularly care to re-interpret classic lit in a slightly different way for the Nth time. I don't wish to meander romantically through the works of dead poets.

I already do educate myself daily - and it's not enough. I need a framework and structure. I need to be challenged. I need a competitive arena. I want tears, blood and anguish.

Part of this is realizing that as much as I love fiction - I'm a terrible fiction writer. I can elaborate, I can tell tall tales that are true, but I'm a awful fiction writer. I like facts, as nebulous and mushy as they can be the more closely one inspects them. I could see myself in technical writing, in journalism in a niche field like science and technology, and I could also see myself getting into serious journalism and reporting about the things that matter in this world, many of them terrible.

I realize that traditional journalism has spilled most of what little blood it had left. Thankfully I'm very comfortable with new media and the internet. Naturally, I love the stuff. So who knows where and what fields the future holds for "traditional" reporting in that context. Maybe it means writing for video, or whatever comes next after video. Whether or not it can still be a viable field to pay the bills as a career remains to be seen.

Third: besides the desire to be challenged and become more educated - my end goal is to be able to back up the sort of writing, thinking and speaking I already do with conviction and authority. To develop discipline.

I don't see school as an escape from reality or a refuge - it has nothing to do with the current economy. I don't automatically assume I can be a professor, but I'm naturally gifted at teaching. Going to school is just something I should have started a long time ago. This is something I've been thinking about for years and years, and very intensely for the last few months.

Since I can hang with PhDs and hold my ground in a debate uneducated and come up with original thoughts, what would I be like with an education to back it up? There's a future me, there, that I want very much.

Last: This may be too fatalistic for most of you - but considering my current age and past lifestyle choices and personal/family medical history - there's a pretty good chance that debts accrued from a long term graduate education will outlive me. The stress of going to school could kill me outright. I'm totally ok with that. It's a hell of a lot better then sitting around being depressed, smoking pot and whoring around on reddit. Better to die trying then to not try at all.
posted by loquacious at 8:37 PM on October 26, 2010 [3 favorites]


Then just go one step at a time, without worrying about getting work as an academic -- that's several years down the line anyhow.

Speak to an admissions counselor about what is required to get in. See if you can meet with a counselor for non-traditional students - they may have some advice regarding your GED situation.

It may be that you will need to go to a community college first. This would not be a bad move in my opinion - you'll be eligible for aid, the courses will be a good introduction to college life for you, and it will help save you some money down the line.

Have you been working with any work force centers or other social service agencies? A lot of them offer to pay some of their participant's tuition, you may be able to arrange something along those lines.

I don't really care about the moral quandary of paying back loans or not. Regardless of the likelihood of you ever getting into a repayment period, I would still advise you to make logical choices when it comes to taking out loans.
posted by Think_Long at 8:48 PM on October 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


I want to be able speak with authority, with more clarity and with more rigorous thinking. I want to be challenged. I don't particularly care to re-interpret classic lit in a slightly different way for the Nth time. I don't wish to meander romantically through the works of dead poets.

Respectfully, you might want to think twice about considering an English lit. degree, then. Though what you'll find in practice in most English departments will be more rigorous than what you're talking about, I suspect you'll find it to be just variations of analysis and reinterpretation (often through various critical lenses, but still). With what you're saying here, technical writing sounds like a start, though it might be a bit dry or overly pragmatic for you. Also, though the pragmatist in me winces to mention it (because the job market is just as bad, if not worse), have you thought about a philosophy degree? Earnest study of philosophy sounds like it would have the intellectual rigor that you're craving.

(For what it's worth, as someone who mentioned the economy, it's not that I assume that you'd be hiding out in academia but that the economy in general makes academia a less-than-wonderful place these days; it's not your plans that might be ill-conceived, but the world around them that might make them so.)

But beyond all that, I can't help but nod in agreement with BitterOldPunk. Even now, I can tell you that you sound very authoritative from this end--because you speak from experience. I genuinely don't think that you need this external validation to be the person you're hoping you'll be, and I suspect that, when it comes down to it, you might find academia in practice to be less awesome than you're hoping. But either way, keep us updated. And best of luck to you.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:50 PM on October 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


[folks - additional ranting about the student loan aspect are sort of far afield, sorry but maybe take that stuff to email?]
posted by jessamyn at 9:13 PM on October 26, 2010


As long as you're thinking about majoring in something impractical that will never get you a job, what about philosophy?

I bet you might actually end up a better writer as a philosophy major, since so much of effective writing is really just effective thinking. Whereas it seems that literature majors spend a lot of time making crap up and using academese to obfuscate that it's just made-up crap; meanwhile, journalism majors never get time to get into anything on more than a superficial level because it's on the the next short-deadline, crank-it-out story/assignment.

But philosophy... I bet you'd have an absolute ball with that.
posted by Jacqueline at 9:14 PM on October 26, 2010


jessamyn: I can handle it. It's not really a derail - it's a valid concern. I'm a "need input" kind of person. My filters are fairly well developed.
posted by loquacious at 9:20 PM on October 26, 2010


But philosophy... I bet you'd have an absolute ball with that.

It's on the table. So is metaphysics.
posted by loquacious at 9:21 PM on October 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


loq: people can email you for side conversations of the morality of your decisions. This isn't about what you can handle, this is about what AskMe is for.
posted by jessamyn at 9:25 PM on October 26, 2010


jess: Fair enough. I know you're overwhelmed today. I'm just assuring you I won't take it personally how people react to a badly phrased question on my part.
posted by loquacious at 9:29 PM on October 26, 2010


Uh... I wouldn't count on putting off the loans forever by being a perpetual student. As a general rule, schools that aren't community college will eventually want you to LEAVE so they can get other students into your seat. Beats me how Johnny Lechner is getting away with it, my school would have forced him out a long time ago.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:07 PM on October 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure how much you've googled around, but look at FinAid if you haven't already. It's got a decent explanation of what your options are (what's a Stafford Loan, how to get a scholarship for left handers, non-traditional sources of aid, that kind of thing). Watch out for their plugs of for-profit stuff in the midst of perfectly good information and be aware that they're aimed at the traditional end of the market. This is their page on non-trads.

Also, as much as I loathe it, you'll probably be able to get a decent idea of what scholarships exist by looking at FastWeb. Be prepared for way too many emails once you've signed up, but to give them credit they do do a good job of uncovering some of the more obscure scholarships out there. Since you fill out a basic profile, they'll be able to steer you towards scholarships for non-trads (which definitely exist).

Additionally, noodle around the government's official website about student financial aid, with the original name of Student Aid on the Web.

That'll bring you up to speed on the basics as far as scholarships, what loan options exist for you (if any, with your sticky Selective Service issue), and perhaps provide you with ideas for other sources of aid. Then, you can start asking the questions about the GED (I would really recommend getting it done), Selective Service (and be sure to get any financial office information in writing, as officially as possible. Those fuckers change their mind about every ten seconds and it's very important to get things as straight as you can when you do talk to them), etc.

Keep in mind that there are often private sources of aid. My undergrad matched my Pell Grants (free money) with their own grants (free money, this time directly from the college endowment and alumni). Be aware that non-trads have sources of funding that traditional students can't necessarily draw on, and that might be something that each college reveals on a case by case basis.

Finally, good luck! I absolutely hear you about college providing discipline and framework and hope you can make it work for you.
posted by librarylis at 10:11 PM on October 26, 2010


Here's a different approach. You're looking for rigor and a framework, but that doesn't have to translate to "full-time student." I don't know how you stand with regard to full-time employment, but if it's an option for you, consider looking for administrative or other work at a university that offers the option to take free classes as a benefit.

In general, being a part-time student might be the way to go. You take one or two classes per semester instead of 4, have time for a part-time job, and are probably able to invest more time and effort into your classes than full-time students. If you're not looking for a degree, that could also mean not having to take general requirement classes you're not interested in. I know a few people who do this and take it very seriously. It doesn't take care of the need to make a living, but it's a very good way to continue in academia for life.
posted by people? I ain't people! at 11:54 PM on October 26, 2010


"Since I can hang with PhDs and hold my ground in a debate uneducated and come up with original thoughts what would I be like with an education to back it up? There's a future me, there, that I want very much."

This right here sets off a bit of an alarm with me.

Having conversations with people is so very different than what actual academics do. Sure, they teach, and some of them are good at that (and some are very bad). But the things that academics do most of the time have nothing to do with human interaction. Mostly, in the first stages of their careers, they have to research and publish. They spend hours upon hours in the library or the lab doing research. Often, they're trying to establish their own niche by doing research on incredibly obscure topics. This is a feature, not a bug, since it means you can do original research that isn't "shown up" by more established academics.

And then there's the committee meetings and other such tedious bullshit.

To be blunt, I don't think you really understand what academics do or how they spend most of their time.

If you like teaching, become a teacher. The job market for public and private schools isn't great, but it should turn around. The academic job market has been on a steady decline for decades now, and those jobs are never coming back.
posted by bardic at 1:28 AM on October 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


To echo bardic, I'm not sure you really have a clear sense of what an academic career is like. I have a lot of family and friends who are academics -- and even more of them who are former academics. The thing is, the ability to teach, do research, and be intellectually engaged are only a fraction of what an academic career requires. It is an extremely demanding field where -- as the joke goes -- the politics are so brutal because the stakes are so low. This is a nice way of saying that people will stab you in the back over crumbs. The time spent on committees, advising, going to conferences, grant-writing, publishing, jockeying for tenure (if you can even land a tenure-track job, which hasn't been a given for decades) etc. can be overwhelming -- you are never really "away" from work, not during your evenings or your weekends or your summers or your holidays. The lifetime of learning/teaching that I think you envision (and which I envisioned when I went into grad school after college!) doesn't really exist, unless you're independently wealthy and can just pursue various degrees for the sheer love of it.

That said: none of this is to discourage you from going to college! I totally think you should, and I think your goals of wanting to develop your critical thinking skills, discipline with your writing, etc. are excellent, and will most certainly serve you well as you move forward in these new chapters of your life. I just don't think it's at all realistic for you to conclude that this means you want to spend a life in academia. Even leaving aside the significant issue of debt -- and it is not something to be taken lightly, no matter what anyone might imply -- academia is a highly competitive, anxiety-provoking world where you don't get a lot of emotional support. I dropped out after my MA not because my writing wasn't good enough (it was) or because I didn't like teaching (I did) or because my endeavors weren't sufficiently intellectual (they were); I dropped out because I just didn't have the mental armor and sheer tenacity to endure a lifetime of the soul-crushing politics.

Loq, you have great things to say and contribute. Going to college (and specifically starting in a community college setting might be the ideal first step, as suggested upthread) will certainly help you do those things, and find a field that is best suited for you (what about a rhetoric/writing program?). But one step at a time.
posted by scody at 2:12 AM on October 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


Have you taken a look at college courses available free online, like MIT's Open CourseWare or Open Yale Courses or others here? Not necessarily as a substitute for actually attending college yourself, but as a way to get a feel for what different kinds of classes in different areas are like, what's involved, etc?

And I'd also recommend you really think about the suggestion above about working at a university and getting free classes as a benefit-- obviously finding such a job may be difficult, but if you succeed in getting one, it's a lot easier path to getting your classes paid for then cobbling together various forms of financial aid, especially if it turns out you're not qualified for federal aid because of the Selective Service thing. (Besides, your ability to "write a hell of an essay, give a talk and demonstrate my intelligence and willingness to learn and be scholarly" may be more of a help in getting a job at a great college than it would in getting you into a great college and getting all the financial aid you'll need. You don't need to look just at administrative work, maybe you'll find a professor who needs an assistant and who thinks you're great...) And being able to take classes for free would let you take your time figuring out whether you really want to get an undergraduate degree, whether you would really want to go to grad school... or whether you just want to take a lot of interesting, challenging classes, learn and grow from them, and then move on (debt-free!)
posted by EmilyClimbs at 8:38 AM on October 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


I want to be able speak with authority, with more clarity and with more rigorous thinking. I want to be challenged.

In my opinion, that's a good reason to choose college.
Get admitted and have the financial aid department counsel you as to what monies are available. Hopefully they can help you months in advance of your actually signing up for classes, so the aid is all ready to go. Maybe they can get you some workstudy funds as well? Once you are an established student with an excellent academic record, there will be more scholarships that you can apply for - think "promising student in area X" scholarships. So your first financial help will be need-based, and from there you will add some merit-based money to it.

Also, bear in mind that you will learn clarity and rigor of thought in all your classes, from history to biology to english; "how to think" and "how to form a good arguement" are what underlies all of those. Not just journalism or philosophy. Frankly, if it looks like you can get more money for school by majoring in a different area, go ahead and do it, because you're still going to reach the above-stated goal no matter what your major.

To me, going to college is different from going to technical school for the reason that college tries to introduce you to many different subjects and areas of thought (that's why all the required courses), while tech school focuses on training you in a specific area. (But my tech school grad relatives outearn the rest of us.)

Best of luck!
posted by Knowyournuts at 9:47 AM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


My main assets are the fact I can write a hell of an essay, give a talk and demonstrate my intelligence and willingness to learn and be scholarly.

I realize that traditional journalism has spilled most of what little blood it had left. Thankfully I'm very comfortable with new media and the internet. Naturally, I love the stuff. So who knows where and what fields the future holds for "traditional" reporting in that context. Maybe it means writing for video, or whatever comes next after video. Whether or not it can still be a viable field to pay the bills as a career remains to be seen.

Third: besides the desire to be challenged and become more educated - my end goal is to be able to back up the sort of writing, thinking and speaking I already do with conviction and authority. To develop discipline.

Since I can hang with PhDs and hold my ground in a debate uneducated and come up with original thoughts, what would I be like with an education to back it up? There's a future me, there, that I want very much.

Last: This may be too fatalistic for most of you - but considering my current age and past lifestyle choices and personal/family medical history - there's a pretty good chance that debts accrued from a long term graduate education will outlive me. The stress of going to school could kill me outright. I'm totally ok with that. It's a hell of a lot better then sitting around being depressed, smoking pot and whoring around on reddit. Better to die trying then to not try at all.


College Schmollege. You've been on the nontraditional path your entire life and I think trying to get on the traditional college path would hold you back. I got a BA in English Lit from a fairly good school and I'm pretty sure it made me more dumb and atrophied part of my brain. I had to read the Awakening 5 times between high school and college. By the 3rd time I was ready to dramtically through the book into the ocean. English lit departments are not the place to learn new things.

If you've really got the chops and are looking for discipline this is what I would suggest you do:
1. Get a GED - it'll just make things easier. I think they do them on computers now so you can't draw tittie pictures on the back of the book out of boredom.
2. Take enough Community College courses to get an associates degree in either English, creative writing, composition something like that.
3.Put together a small portfolio and get a job - write regularly for a paper, magazine, blog, whatever and freelance larger projects on the side.
4. Once you have a nice portfolio of professional bylines, you can teach part time at community college or some 4-year schools in journalism or creative writing departments.

I didn't read through your MF history or anything but you give me the impression of someone who had a sucky life and almost died, possibly of your own hand and recovered, now has a new lease and wants to do it right and normal like the other people. But the secret is noone's normal and there is no right, there is only yours.
posted by WeekendJen at 10:03 AM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


That should say lease on life.

I should also clarify that I think trying to get and keep a regular writing gig will teach you discipline moreso than continuous schooling.
posted by WeekendJen at 10:06 AM on October 27, 2010


As someone who has both Journalism and English degrees, might I suggest Communications? I think that would allow you the possibility of more work on your writing with a strong structural framework, and would lend itself well to work for nonprofits, etc.
posted by questionsandanchors at 1:08 PM on October 27, 2010


Too bad you don't want to get a degree in statistics. I guarantee you'll find work.
posted by Mental Wimp at 3:37 PM on October 27, 2010


Sorry, I did not even slightly mean to suggest that becoming a professor was a) easy, b) likely to be possible, c) a good thing to rely on as a career prospect, or d) nonstop fun and intellectual stimulation. I spent four years advising young people working towards their PhDs, so I understand that it's a damned near impossible row to hoe. But it does satisfy the "get to stay in school forever" requirement; all I was suggesting is that there are some people who get to do that without living in squalor and then committing suicide.

OP, understand that academia often sucks just as much as other jobs do and that unless you are very, very hard-working and very, very lucky, you will not become a tenured professor. And even if you do, your job will still suck sometimes.
posted by decathecting at 5:00 PM on October 27, 2010


I would be curious to hear what the answer is on the Selective Service issue, from the aunt and cousin in Washington. I have a friend who could NOT get any federal money -- no loans, no Pell grants, no nuthin' -- because he didn't register for Selective Service and didn't have a "compelling case". It really removed a lot of regular sources of funding.
posted by lillygog at 5:03 PM on October 27, 2010


I took a couple of community college classes. It may just be the teacher/school that was weak, but based on the general intelligence of your posting I find you will be bored and unfulfilled by many courses taught there.

You're not doing this for the degree, you're not doing it for the future pay. So making any of the normal motions to get any kind of degree just isn't worth it.

I agree with others who have suggested online courses. I think you need to seek out other options, though. Your profile suggests you live in Seattle. A hip west-coast town like that, they must have a lot of resources out there. Not sure what the exact term is, but something like "collective learning" must exist there.

I took a writing class in college; seriously all it entailed was people reading aloud what they'd written and then people saying what they thought about it. You don't need to go to college for that.

I really enjoyed college but part of it was I was pretty much the same age as everyone else, I was in very good financial shape, my parents helped out (so I didn't go deeply into debt), and I happened to have a hobby -- programming -- that I was able to fall back on as a job.

If you are able to get a job at a University, that's possibly the best of all possible angles. You get to sit in on classes when you have the time and it doesn't cost you.
posted by Deathalicious at 6:58 PM on October 27, 2010


Incidentally, you don't get less bored of boring teachers when you get older. You just get more jaded and frustrated.
posted by Deathalicious at 7:02 PM on October 27, 2010


Thanks to all for the brutally honest answers. Here's an update:

As a few people have aptly pointed out I'm probably not cut out for grad school and/or tenure track. I don't think I have that color in my parachute - I loathe politics. But historically I tend to float above or around politics, especially when I'm projecting "intense. and physically and intellectually imposing.", but it still makes me itchy to be around the stuff. Since I'm naturally paranoid I pretty much assume everyone is out to get me until proven otherwise, so, there's that going for me as far as tactics are concerned. But I'm no politician. Ignoring it doesn't make it go away.

I do actually like libraries and being in them. The idea of spending months/years ferreting out arcane topics and challenging myself to come up with original thoughts about really mundane, boring shit is actually very appealing and satisfying for me. I already do that. I've gone on epic multi-month trawls just to research the history of steel-making and metallurgy, for example. If it wasn't for the dire competition and politics, this part doesn't scare me off at all.

I also didn't think that grad school was some kind of sitcom set where people sat around talking about things casually or endlessly or it was in any way exciting or dramatic. Life isn't a TV show. My primary IT support work history is on educational/university campuses, as well as dated a couple of grads and post-docs so I've seen what grad students actually do.

I also realize and plan (planned?) to enter via a community college with intent to transfer. I harbor no illusions about walking into an A-list institution as a non-traditional student without a track record - or a sizable bank account.

I also realize that if I went for grad school and a doctorate I probably wouldn't get there until I was 45 or so, give or take a few years depending on focus or funding. In the best case scenario. And that's a long time. But my grandma went back and got her Masters at 65 or so, so it's not impossible.

So the best option for me seems to be get a damn job or become gainfully self employed. That's already number one on the list and I'm working on it. (And freelancing as I write this. Thanks to a MeFi member who shall remain nameless I'm actually being paid just to write for the first time ever, instead of getting paid to write/edit as an auxiliary function of being in IT or a graphic designer in a marketing department. It's empowering.)

So, job. Then I can pick and choose from the educational buffet and try things on for size. Part of the main reason I want to go back to school (possibly full time) is because I'm not even sure what all there is on the buffet. I've never had that experience. I've never sat down with a guidance counselor and explored these things. I have no idea what I might find that I'd just fall into and never look back. I picked journalism or lit as examples because I forgot - for example - that the field of study of communications even exists.

Heck, I forgot about philosophy or metaphysics until I was reminded in thread. I have no idea where I might land, because my tastes are so broad I could end up almost anywhere from political science to computer science to molecular biology. Ok, maybe not molecular biology. When I was a kid I wanted to study artificial intelligence, but then I discovered I pretty much hate math and the forced autism of coding - and I discovered the endlessly receding horizon and debate between hard vs. soft AI, and metaphysics - and just how rare and impossible real intelligence is, artificial or not. The more I learned about ontology the more I really grasped how hard true AI really is, and I'm not alone there.

Anyway, yeah. Baby steps towards goals.

Thanks everyone!
posted by loquacious at 12:32 PM on October 28, 2010 [6 favorites]


I had problems with that FAFSA thing when I had no income. They just don't believe you have no income.

I have no idea when the person who wrote those sentences filed, but this hasn't been the case whatsoever for me. I had literally no income and had not had any for almost a decade when I filed my FAFSA for the 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 school years. I filed online, which may have been the key difference. I had no problem with either the FAFSA people or my school (a community college) believing that I really do not have an income and I really do have an EFC of 0.

You've gotten plenty of other solid advice, but I didn't want you to walk away from this thread thinking that everyone is going to believe you're not broke when you are.
posted by asciident at 10:19 PM on October 28, 2010


That's a fantastic plan loquacious. Community colleges are great because you can choose classes that most suit your schedule, especially once you start working some more fixed hours.

Also: universities and colleges have tons of events (discussions and lectures) that are open to the public. You should start checking them out, just so you get an idea of how the professionals in whatever field you're interested talk about what they talk about.

I filed online, which may have been the key difference. I had no problem with either the FAFSA people or my school (a community college) believing that I really do not have an income and I really do have an EFC of 0.

The department of ed. doesn't even really send out the paper applications anymore. The school may ask you to prove your lack of income, they may not -- it's part random sample, and partly a system of 'red flags' that are triggered based on certain answers on the fafsa.
posted by Think_Long at 5:57 AM on October 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


I've gone on epic multi-month trawls just to research the history of steel-making and metallurgy, for example.

So, job. Then I can pick and choose from the educational buffet.

loquacious, I have a great idea for you (I think), as you consider school.

There are people who write books about ordinary things and make them insanely interesting.

For example:

Salt: A World History
Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World
The F-Word

Also, there are people who make shows like this one, based on interesting (and not alway obvious) historical/philosophical/scientific connections over time:

Connections

This show was great, and we need people who can write well along the same lines. History, philosophy, science, all wrapped up into an interesting and related package. It seems to meld with your eclectic interests.

I've always wanted the skill to do something like this. I don't have it. I think you could do this.

You could start putting the results of your research into a blog format. Garner a dedicated readership (I guarantee you there is a market for this stuff). Turn it into a profitable venture when publishers see what you are capable of and want to turn it into a book. People will buy this stuff.
posted by SpacemanStix at 12:03 PM on October 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


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