Go to school or stay employed?
January 10, 2012 1:10 PM   Subscribe

Quit my job and go to school, or stay in the same spot and not really get anywhere? Special snowflake details inside.

I work a M-F, 8-4 secretary job at a california state prison. I'm 25, and haven't really been doing anything other than working since I was 16. I've been at my current job for about 6 years now, which pays enough (for an entry-level position) and provides me with full benefits.

I have made several attempts at college (some going better than others) but find that I get discouraged because I can only take 2-3 classes at a time without becoming overwhelmed due to my work schedule. I'd like to be able to go through school at a much faster pace.

Knowing the economy is the way it is and that jobs are hard to find, I am reluctant to leave and lose my benefits/only source of income. However, if I do quit, I can cash out on my retirement contributions, giving me about 6 grand to pay off my debt (which is around $4000) and have a little bit left over for living costs.

My parents are very supportive of me quitting my job, as it has brought me nothing but despair. Due to a workplace relationship gone wrong, almost no promotional opportunities, the instability of the prison system, and the generally depressive mood this place puts me in, I can say that I would rather not be here.

I've brought the idea up to several coworkers, many of which say "don't cash out on your retirement". I understand that somewhere down the line it may be worth it to me to have that money stay invested in the state retirement system, however I also would like to pay off a bunch of debt and start getting my life back together.

I'm not a risk-taker by any means. Change scares the shit out of me. But I think that this might be a good move. I have never been a full-time college student and would like to a) get the hell away from this place and b) immerse myself in school as much as possible.

Any thoughts?
posted by nurgle to Work & Money (25 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Until I read that you hate you job, I would have advised you to stay and take classes while working. I'm about to graduate, and at my school most students only take courses 3-4 at a time (this is technically full-time). My situation throughout college was working mind-numbing, dead-end jobs that I hated while taking classes, so your situation wouldn't be terribly different (I'm currently working 30hrs/wk with no benefits). My current job pays more than I've ever made before and it's boring, but it's so much better than a lower-paying, equally boring job. Also, a lot of my money goes toward health insurance and dental and medical bills. If I had benefits I'd be ecstatic.

On the other hand, I'm trying to stabilize my life in my current city for the next couple years, so I have no incentive to take big risks or move on. Also, I'm comfortable working on my intellectual interests on my own time for now (and this is traditional in my creative field). Are you planning to study something with a good job outlook? Do you have enough money/financial aid to pay for school if you quit? I can see why with such a rigid schedule you'd be reluctant to waste away your "college years," but I also think you have a good thing going until you have the credentials to switch to a significantly more attractive job.
posted by stoneandstar at 1:21 PM on January 10, 2012

Response by poster: Are you planning to study something with a good job outlook?
Yes. I will/have been be studying music outside of school, but I hope to pursue a field that is much more pay-friendly.

Do you have enough money/financial aid to pay for school if you quit?
I would most likely get financial aid, yes. My parents would like to help with whatever they can, and a part time job on down the line isn't out of the question. I would actually rather work retail or anywhere that isn't in prison, lol. I don't care if the pay is less. That'd be fine with me.

I agree that it might be a good idea to keep my job. Maybe even switch to part-time. But in all honesty i'd like to leave if I could. Hrm.
posted by nurgle at 1:34 PM on January 10, 2012

if I do quit, I can cash out on my retirement contributions, giving me about 6 grand to pay off my debt (which is around $4000) and have a little bit left over for living costs.

I certainly wouldn't do anything with this as 'the plan'. But if you hate your job, it's worth looking into a more specific plan. Is there a college in your town/city, or would you move? Where do you want to go? How many classes have you taken already, and how many of them would transfer to where you were going? How much financial aid will you get? How fast will that $2000 of life savings disappear? How hard will it be to find another job? If you would be transferring to somewhere else, can you take any more, say, general ed classes part-time where you are now? Maybe you can stick out the current place for six months/a year, and then transfer to your new college having completed all your general ed.
posted by jacalata at 1:35 PM on January 10, 2012

After working for six years you appear to have no assets and $4,000 debt. You propose to leave your only source of income to go to school; I assume you plan to go into more debt for your living expenses and tuition.

It was interesting that you did not mention what you want to go to school for, there was much more written about what you are trying to escape from. I agree the job does not sound like something you will want to do with the rest of your ilfe but unless you are leaving for something better, that will pay your living expenses and allow you to pay down your debt, I would recommend working a while longer to get focused on you want.

I've done the work full-time while attending school part/full-time so I know how exhausting it is; realisitically, unless you have full funding that you don't have to pay back, you are better off going slow and getting a paid-off degree in the end instead of starting your [real] career with a lot of debt over your head limiting your options. Make sure your educational path is leading to an actual job whose income pays off your investment in yourself.
posted by saucysault at 1:36 PM on January 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

Also - are you saving any of your regular paycheck? If not, why not? What about your lifestyle will have to go when you lose all of your income? Ditch anything possible now, and start a savings account.
posted by jacalata at 1:37 PM on January 10, 2012

The only advice I have comes from knowing a lot of people who have gone to school/gone back to school at varying points in life:

Going back to school is a good idea if you have a concrete plan for what kind of job your new degree is going to get you. If you have a career you want to get into, talk to some people in the field and find out what credentials you need then go get those credentials.

Don't go to school because you feel you need a degree. Go because it's part of the plan to get yourself where you want to be.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 1:37 PM on January 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

But if you hate your job, it's worth looking into a more specific plan. Is there a college in your town/city and could you get a job there? You have a lot of administrative experience, and you might be able to take classes for a reduced fee or free if you work for the school.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 1:39 PM on January 10, 2012 [5 favorites]

Yes. As someone who has worked part-time while being in school, I can 100% say that working at a job that drains your life energy makes it SO HARD to do well in school. I quit my hated-beyond-hatred job 2 months into the semester after going back, and it left me so much more able to focus on my classes and do well. I've worked part-time since, and those jobs leave me with enough mental energy to focus on something outside of work.

I would advise you to save your savings and just look for a part-time job while being in school. And don't quit yet -- it takes a few months to actually get accepted and started. You can, in the meantime, make more money and look for a less sucky job. If you apply now, you will be looking at starting in the fall semester -- that's over 6 months from now. Use this time to get your life in order so you can really focus on school when it starts.
posted by DoubleLune at 1:41 PM on January 10, 2012

I would do this:

Wait a couple years. I'm not sure that 26 is old enough to be considered independent of your parents for financial aid purposes.

In the intervening year/two/however many (do the research on this), continue to take a couple classes each semester to build credits. Keep your job* and save to get out of the debt you already have. Put away more money towards saving for school, too.

At the end of that couple years, you should be debt-free with hopefully a cushion of savings (and that retirement cash-out) which you can apply towards going to school full time. It'll also be easier for you to get financial aid and subsidized loans, if you need them.

Keep in mind, too, that it takes time to apply to college(s). Even if you're not planning to go anywhere terribly competitive, you still usually need to apply around now for admission next fall.

Side question: do you know what you want to study when you do finally go to school full time? At this age and with the amount of job experience you probably have, there's really no point in wasting 4 years dicking around studying something that you're not passionate about and/or won't qualify you for some specific line of work you intend to pursue after college. Unless you just need a bachelors degree to move forward, in which case, sure, dick away.

*Then again, you sound extremely miserable at your job, which might be reason enough to just quit now. I mean, bottom line, in a few more years you'll have a degree. Why stay in a dead end secretarial job just for the sake of being employed, when it'll hold you back from your future?
posted by Sara C. at 1:47 PM on January 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure that 26 is old enough to be considered independent of your parents for financial aid purposes.

26 is absolutely old enough. Even as young as, I think, 21 is old enough if the person is supporting him/herself, etc.
posted by DoubleLune at 1:52 PM on January 10, 2012

Jobs are hard to find, but it still may be worth it to look.
Why school? I hear you saying you want an escape plan -- why not a different job? (Or part-time job and part-time school, as others suggested?)
posted by chickenmagazine at 1:53 PM on January 10, 2012

I am in very much the same situation as you: 9-5 soul crushingly boring office job with zero chance of promotion or advancement. Twice I tried getting a degree part-time at night and failed, twice. But. In 6 months I am leaving and returning to full-time college.

However, I do not do this lightly and perhaps some of my plan will help you. I am leaving an admin job that I lucked into 5 years ago to study a language I love and that I study in my spare time anyway. The degree I am taking gives me a wealth of realistic career options: translator, cultural/embassy work, EU/UN work, teach language in this country, teach English in language's country, etc. etc. I have spoken to people who have done this degree, I am confident I have the capacity to finish, I am impressed where past students have ended up.

I have a whole years salary saved. I have looked into every aspect I can think of: does the current timetable at the degree allow for part-time work? Is that during the day or night or weekends only? What is accommodation like for a 'mature student'? What is finance like? What extra classes will a mature have to take? What's the age range on the degree? What's the student retention like?

Every time a new question or situation comes into my head, I write it down and find the answer. I urge you to find answers. I urge you to have a fat cushion of savings. Also, I am doing this without the blessing of my family, who believe personal growth ends once you've found a job - any job! Think about what you'll do if your family/loved ones don't support you.

But, I also urge you to take the plunge. Living behind a dreary desk is just the most inhumane existence imaginable. I should know, but I only have six more months left.
posted by Chorus at 1:53 PM on January 10, 2012

Response by poster: Thank you all for your posts. I might add that:
a) I am not really quite sure what I'd like to study, although I am leaning towards computer science. But that's what college is for right? Figuring out what one is interested in.

I don't even have my general ed stuff out of the way. I have yet to go through that part of things before I can transfer out.

Hope that helps.
posted by nurgle at 1:53 PM on January 10, 2012

21 is certainly NOT old enough. I went through this when I was a college student and supporting myself. It's at least a few years over the age at which most traditional four-year college students graduate.

This is definitely worth doing the research on, as a tiny fraction of time may determine what kinds of aid/loans you're eligible for.
posted by Sara C. at 1:54 PM on January 10, 2012

Response by poster: I am considered independent status for financial aid purposes. I know this already.
posted by nurgle at 1:55 PM on January 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Don't go to college now if you don't know what you want to study. You can shift around a little, but no, going to college at 26 is not for playing around and finding yourself.

Keep in mind that you will likely be in school for three years or more once you go full time. Every time you switch majors, add a semester to that total. Then imagine being a 35 year old undergrad in tens of thousands of dollars of debt.
posted by Sara C. at 1:56 PM on January 10, 2012

21 is certainly NOT old enough.

(Although the OP has answered this, in case future people need this data.)
There are certain circumstances where 21 may be old enough -- for example, if the student has been supporting himself for years, is not already in school, and just going to school for the first time. This is very different than someone who went straight into college after high school. Also some colleges have their own rules one way or the other about this.
posted by DoubleLune at 2:08 PM on January 10, 2012

a) I am not really quite sure what I'd like to study, although I am leaning towards computer science. But that's what college is for right? Figuring out what one is interested in.

I want to do the exact same thing, down to this exact same major.

So, my question to you - how's your math? Comp Sci is pretty math heavy. Luckily, there's resources out there that'll help you brush up on your math skills; I've been doing Khan Academy every day. If anything, it'll get you back in the habit of studying every day again. And you'll probably have to take a Math Placement Test once you enter college anyways, so this'll also be good for that.

Another thing I've done that's been useful - take the college that you want to go to and see if you can set up an appointment with an Admissions Counselor. They can even do this over the phone, if needed. Good luck!
posted by spinifex23 at 2:20 PM on January 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

But that's what college is for right? Figuring out what one is interested in.
If you're a directionless, clueless, 17 year old with either a family trust, full ride, or not enough brains to realise what a $50,000 debt will mean in five years, then that's what it can be for. If you're 26, you should be mature enough not to need the structure of a 5 figure babysitter just to find something you're interested in. So no, that's not what it's for.

Other ways to find out what you're interested in
- the part-time classes you're doing now.
- free online classes: if you're thinking of doing computer science, begin taking the Open Courseware classes. Join the CodeYear program, or just Learn Python
- books, the library, etc
- hobby groups
posted by jacalata at 2:48 PM on January 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'd suggest staying in your job while applying to admin jobs at universities near you, as another poster above suggested. Given how long you've worked at your current job, it sounds like you have a lot of admin experience. Two friends of mine have admin positions at universities, and they get seriously reduced tuition each semester (I know one only has to pay around 10% of the cost of each course he takes - so if each course should be $4000, he only pays $400). It will still be a slower road to a B.A. than going full-time, but the huge advantage is that you won't have crushing amounts of debt when you're finished (in fact, if you live frugally, I bet you could get that B.A. debt free, paying the much reduced tuition as well as your living expenses with your salary). Plus, going slowly sounds like it would be much more bearable if you're at a job that you don't loathe. This plan would be a sort of middle ground between staying indeterminately at a job you hate and dropping everything for a very uncertain plan that involves lots of debt.
posted by UniversityNomad at 3:02 PM on January 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

"But that's what college is for right? Figuring out what one is interested in. "

That's what college is for when you're 18 and your parents are helping to foot the bill. Now it's for a) helping you become a more well-rounded and educated human being and citizen of a democracy (worthy goals!) and b) advancing your career. If you feel stuck now with a small debt and a job that pays benefits, imagine how stuck you will feel with McJobs with no benefits and $50,000 in educational debt. (VERY VERY STUCK.) It will be way, way worse if you get a few semesters under your belt, get frustrated again, and drop out. Then you'll have the debt and no degree. (Not to be a nag, but if you had stuck it out with just 2 classes a semester + 1 in summer, and you'd have earned an associate's within 4 years.)

You, my friend, sound like a candidate for community college. Knock off those Gen Eds on nights and weekends (and online!) and do a little water-testing to see what sorts of things interest you. Find out what sorts of transfer rules your state has (in many states, community college credits are guaranteed to transfer to the state system).

You will *probably* be disappointed if you try to immerse yourself completely in college at 26. If you're not in the 18-22 range, on a residential campus, college isn't like the movies. The social aspects of college will be very different for you as a "non-traditional" student. I feel like between the desire to find your passion and the desire to immerse yourself in college, you're looking at college more as an escape fantasy than as a real thing, and I worry that having started and stopped several times before now, you may do so again.

I think you should separate hating your job and wanting to leave it from wanting to get a degree. If I were you, I'd be job shopping -- there must be other jobs posted in the state that you get some preference for by already being a state employee, I'd look at colleges and universities like someone suggested above, the private sector, etc. AND I would be at my local community college knocking off some gen eds and trying a couple computer science courses. If you have enough pre-reqs for computer science courses, take one comp sci this spring semester and one Gen Ed. Take one class this summer. Take your vacation days to do an "intersession" or "minimester" or whatever your local community colleges call it where they do a super-intensive two-week session between semesters.

And to fulfill your dreams of an immersive college experience, I suggest you look at colleges and universities with one to two week programs for the general public, where you live on-campus and learn Underwater Basket Weaving with the top Underwater Basket Weaving professors in a program geared to feed the intellectually-inclined general public while generating money, goodwill, and interest for the college. You'll probably find more of your peers in such a setting, too.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:08 PM on January 10, 2012 [5 favorites]

But that's what college is for right? Figuring out what one is interested in.

I agree with jacalata above. The idea of "finding yourself" at college is an indulgence for people who can afford it.

If I were in your shoes (and to some extent I am), I would be spending my free time trying to gain experience in the field I'm interested in so I can make an educated decision about the program to go into.

You're interested in comp sci? That's great -- I don't know what experience you have with computers, but there's free resources for basically any level. If you don't know how to code, learn a language. If you do, join an open source project or build something of your own. If spending an hour a day on a project you're not getting paid for sounds like a waste of time, school will be much, much worse.

I would also consider night courses at a community college to make sure the material is something you're interested in before committing and quitting your job.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 3:10 PM on January 10, 2012

If you could quit without going to school, would you? Is it possible that your desire to leave is making you think that quitting to go to school is a good idea, but that you are not really interested in returning?

If you're ready to finish school, I definitely recommend working full-time while going to school at night/weekends. I get that you hate your job, but find another one? Mostly, I recommend this for the financial reasons.

- Let's say you make $25,000/year, and right now you spend all of that just to keep alive.
- In 2009, the average annual tuition cost in the US was $7,020.
- I found a Kaiser Permanente insurance plan for ZIP 90001, 25-year-old non-smoking male for $254/month no deductible.

Let's ignore the lab costs, book costs, etc., and assume that you're taking that out of your current wardrobe costs. If you get loans to cover your needs, you are looking at $25,000 living costs + $7,020 tuition + $3,048 insurance per year. Times four years, that's $140,272.

Now, you borrow that sum, at 6.8% interest for 10 years. You make $50 payments every month, with about $1600 as your last payment. Over those ten years, you pay a total interest of $53,438.83. The four years cost you $193,710.83.

How to reduce that? Well, if you are working you can remove $25,000/year and the insurance costs. If you borrow all the tuition money, that's $28,080 for the four years. With the same type of loan and payments (but a last payment of about $300), you pay a total interest of $10,697.24, and the total bill is $38,777.24.

tl;dr: Work while attending school to save about $154,933.
posted by Houstonian at 3:44 PM on January 10, 2012

If this helps, here's what I plan on doing to possibly get a CS degree - or, at least, some CS classes under my belt:

I have a full time job. It's a decent enough job, but not completely what I want to do. Currently, I'm brushing up on my math via Khan Academy, and I'm not even going to approach the Placement Test until I have all the exercise modules done. Good news on this - it won't cost you money to do these, just time. Then, I plan on taking one class at a time at my local Community College - in researching the ones in my area, I found one (Seattle Central Community College) that has good math and programming classes. To get through the 3-4 math classes (assuming I place into Calculus) and 2 programming classes I want to take, that should take another year and a half or so.

Then, I should be able to better ascertain if I want to try to continue at the University level, or take what I've learned and apply it. However, the difference here is that I *know* that Computer Science is what I want to study, as I've been in the Software Development industry for a decade or so now. And, I have money saved up for the tuition, so I won't be incurring debt.

Another thing to consider - I'm assuming that your health insurance is good at your current job? Because a lot of 'college insurance' plans are not that hot. That's also something else to consider. Financially, I could afford to quit my job tomorrow and go to school full time for the next year or so. However, due to pre-existing conditions and my age, there's no way I could get a health insurance plan on the market for anything less than exorbitant rates.
posted by spinifex23 at 7:08 PM on January 10, 2012

Go to school. But select a cheaper state university or a community college. Don't take on huge student loans.
posted by WizKid at 2:40 PM on January 12, 2012

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