Worth Teaching Old Dog New Tricks...?
August 31, 2012 4:00 PM   Subscribe

Is it worth it for me to pursue higher education? Middle-aged, single parent, seasoned corporate employee and....

...I have a 9th grade education (GED with a fairly high score) along with some professional education (Project Management certificate is the most marketable one), absolutely terrible credit (willing to discuss over memail, but, trust me, it's terrible), and a staggering fear of compromising the wobbly security I've established again this year after a couple years of unemployment and illness.

I was watching this video and it made me think (again) about how much I would love to just stop everything to get an actual degree, and then enjoy being more useful and more valued in the workplace.

But...how? I would need to pursue all of the grants, I know, but then wouldn't I have to rely on loans to round out the rest, at least until I've shown enough promise to earn scholarships?

I hear the advice to keep working while going to school percolating, but that's why I don't have a degree now - my prior attempts were while working, and it ended up being a wretched waste of money and effort because the thing that pays my bills had to have my focused attention over anything else. When I consider how much that pressure would be intensified with having to give full attention to my toddler in addition to all else, I know for a fact that I would need to find a way to make going to school full-time without a supporting job work out.

Type of degree matters to whether it's worth it or not, and I get that. Options are: Computer Science with an eye to Development (Web or Software); Psychologist; Teacher; Social Worker. Ranked roughly in order of average compensation, as interest is about equal at this point and I can narrow these down further after I make the broader decision.

Currently, I am in a lower-level position at a growing-ish company that does interesting things and utilizes my skills somewhat. I have previously lost more valuable positions due to lack of degree at other companies, but here it wouldn't hold me back. Growth here is somewhat slow, though, and I would actually have better benefits as a social worker.

I know this is a scattered question, but the gist is this: with the profile and goals detailed above, do you think it would be worthwhile for me to start the process of seeing how I could do school full-time, or would I be better served to stay where I am now (and, of course, keep my eye out for positions that could give me better challenges and compensation)?
posted by batmonkey to Education (16 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I am really interested in reading the responses to this as my husband is in a somewhat similar situation. The one thing he and I are hoping will help is that his company offers some tuition assistance and schedule flexibility to help employees pursue relevant degrees. Does your employer offer anything like that? If they're a small company they may not officially offer this as a benefit to employees, but you could at least ask if there's any way they could help you.
posted by joan_holloway at 4:37 PM on August 31, 2012

Like you I was primary custodian of a little person and a high school dropout with terrible credit (although, I did have a diploma).

I went back to school at one of the best engineering schools in the world at age 32 and it was one of the best things I have ever done.

My thoughts :

I started at a community college because it was lower cost, and more singleparent and work friendly scheduling. It let me try out college before committing fully to it. The downside - and it was substantial - very limited financial aid. But I made it work for two semesters and I think it was valuable.

When I transferred to the large public university, there was far more aid available. My crappy credit (from a prior bankruptcy no less) didn't seem to matter much. Plus, since I qualified for workstudy, there were ample good jobs available that really really loved my real world skills and work ethic.

And - since I was in college Discovercard had a thing where they were basically handing cards out to students. Mine started with like a 200 dollar limit because of my crappy credit, but it's over 15,000 now and was really key to rebuilding it. Anyway, there is some benefit to student loans and debt.

The key thing for you - costs. Not only do you have to fund tuition, books, food and rent, you are doing this without your income for 4 years.

This leads to the main downside - between your family, your income, your grades, something has to give. For me, it was grades. I did an engineering degree in 3.5 years and only 19k in debt, but my GPA was 2.8.

The upside - only three employers even asked what my GPA was and I got several times as many offers at graduation as most of my classmates. Still, it smarts - I know I could have done better - there just weren't enough hours in the day.

I hope this helps. If there is more, you can memail me or post here. Good luck.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 4:39 PM on August 31, 2012 [3 favorites]

I have two thoughts on this.

First, I don't even know what level of education most of my coworkers have, unless it just happens to have come up in conversation. I value them based on their skills, simple as that.

Second, your actual academic life becomes all but irrelevant a year after you start your first "real" job - I'd hire someone who has done the job for a decade over someone who Harvard says "has great potential" in a heartbeat.

That said, my second point has something of a disclaimer - Many jobs will "require" a degree simply as a way to weed out 99% of applicants; and even those willing to accept "or comparable experience" will still use education to help sort the pile.
posted by pla at 5:31 PM on August 31, 2012

I think the most economical way to get a top notch degree is to do two years at the best community college you can figure out, that's near you. Take mostly in-person (not online) classes, get to know some facutly, and get AMAZING grades. If you can do this, you can get into a wealthy college as a junior transfer and since you have a very low income, you will be eligible for full financial aid (i.e. full ride meaning tuition and living expenses with NO LOANS). This is a tough process. You need to research the universities that would do this (look at Smith College, look at Cornell University) and you need a stellar record at the community college. It's not easy but it does happen- I can name a handful of students who I know who have gone this route and graduated from Ivy League or equivalent university with no student loans.

As a starting point, try to take one or two community college classes (that count as their highest track/difficulty classes) while you are working, and see how it goes. Good luck!
posted by cushie at 5:47 PM on August 31, 2012

Also, some of the information in these answers may be useful to you.
posted by cushie at 5:49 PM on August 31, 2012

Options are: Computer Science with an eye to Development (Web or Software)

Programming is a special case; you can learn to program without formally enrolling at an institution. And get hired on your merits.

Programmer to HR department: "Hire batmonkey; she's been contributing to these 2-3 linux software / web development projects for 2-3 years and knows her stuff".

No idea how the job market is, mind.
posted by sebastienbailard at 6:00 PM on August 31, 2012

You could be an excellent candidate for one of the programs at women's colleges for non-traditional students. Wikipedia has a surprisingly good list.

That said, you also have a lot in common with many of my students at an open access (no admissions standards) four-year public liberal arts college. The single mom non-traditional students are usually the top students in my classes. I don't know enough about the Texas university systems to know if such options exist there, but we offer many advantages over large universities--for instance, I know which of my students are single moms and can work with them regarding missing classes or deadlines because of kid issues.

Nobody can really tell you if it's "worth it" to go to college. Folks can help you think about it financially, but if you've always wanted to go to college, if you really want to learn things, then there is a benefit there beyond the financial, and nobody else can tell you if that is "worth it" or not. A lot of my students tell me things like "I wanted my kids to see me do this" and "I wanted to do this for myself". To me, those are just as good justifications as the financial ones.
posted by hydropsyche at 6:10 PM on August 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

hydropsyche's suggestion reminds me of the PEO, which is a women's group my mother-in-law is involved in. They have all sorts of educational grants and loans including a program for women whose education was interrupted. Most/all of their programs are for women in upper-level courses, but it's something worth looking at if you start a four-year program so you can position yourself for an award when you're ready. (And financial aid makes college a significantly more attractive choice.)
posted by immlass at 6:22 PM on August 31, 2012

Do you live near a state university? In my state, university employees working at least 20 hours receive free (or nearly free) tuition for several credits per semester and are allowed to attend a class during work hours. Universities want their employees to earn degrees -- that's essentially what they 'sell' -- so if a degree is your goal, perhaps your professional experience could transfer into a university position?
posted by summerstorm at 10:47 PM on August 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

summerstorm has a good idea, if your current work is one that can be applied within a university somehow. That is how I was able to add some very expensive educational courses in my middling to late 30s, without additional debt.
posted by infini at 11:25 PM on August 31, 2012

Have you considered online classes? There are so many dubious institutions out there, so check the, IMO, top three first: Arizona State University, Penn State Online, UMass Online. All three are real state universities and credibility is not an issue.

Right now I work on the lower end of full time (30 hrs) and take classes also on the lower end of full time (4 classes, one of which is 4 credits). This is very, IMO, manageable- and most of the work/lessons can be done on a public transit commute, the hour before bedtime here, an hour getting up early there, lunch breaks at work, etc. And when you're full time, unless you have a drug conviction, you're eligible for a bit over $10,000 a year in loans guaranteed. Pretty much 99% sure credit is not considered for Federal Loans.

I am someone who barely graduated high school with a 2.something, maybe, can't even remember doing any homework, not a single memory of high school homework. I went to a for-profit "art school" that costs a fortune, all on my parents' dime. After which I became a independent record store employee and became very bitter over the fact that no credits from that school would transfer ANYWHERE. It was maybe 5 or 6 years before I was just like, eff it, and started over at Community College. It took me maybe like 3 years (while working) to do a full year of credits.

After I'd scraped together another year of credits I moved across the country to a state with, I thought, a fantastic public college system. Except the classes are way overbooked, the pre-reqs and credit limits draconian, and the schools started favoring out-of-state students. Pretty depressing. Not to mention those required science classes that have like, one section that is a lab and meets only tues/thurs afternoons. Next semester its mon/weds. This is particularly a big problem with advanced math/science classes.

So although I was extremely suspicious of online college, once I found legit institutions with actual, regionally-accredited degrees it really started to make sense.
posted by tremspeed at 11:43 PM on August 31, 2012

Ok, so I guess I'm the only one who thinks this is a bad idea. {Deep Breath}

Poster, I'd feel differently if there was something you were passionate about that required going back to college. But given that you are doing it apparently solely to garner more respect and income, and given that that's an expensive gamble, and given that your credit is so shitty.... I don't think it would be a good idea. You could easily get stuck paying off huge high-interest loans for a degree you don't end up really wanting to use but have no choice because you've backed yourself into a financial corner. All the worse if you're doing this while having to support a child.

Don't make the assumption that employers or coworkers will treat you better if you have a degree. There are all kinds of other things that go into that, and you could work on any number of things to increase the odds that you'll be respected and valued. Part of that has to do with company culture, so if you're not being respected now it could be due to the company you work for, or the people you work with, and not to your qualifications.

There are also many things you can do to increase your marketability other than commit to a four-year degree. I'm sure there are other certifications than Project Management that would possibly increase your salary and/or marketability.

If you want to go back to school, there are many trade programs that would place you in a better-paying, more stable career without quite the level of debt, and with *more* security. A good plumber or electrician is pretty much guaranteed a job.
posted by parrot_person at 2:57 AM on September 1, 2012

Oh and this? Programming is a special case; you can learn to program without formally enrolling at an institution. And get hired on your merits. SO not true anymore, for someone starting out. It was true before the dot com crash many years ago. Then gradually it became necessary for new people to have a degree, and then after that an IT-related degree, and now often a master's degree. Unless you become a phenomenal programmer, and/or are absolutely excellent at networking, I think you should scratch this idea. Or rather, sure, learn programming, ok, but do NOT assume you can get hired with no credentials.
posted by parrot_person at 3:00 AM on September 1, 2012

If you want to do this, you can do it! I think it'd be a great idea to meet with an advisor at some of the local Community Colleges in th area to see what they have to offer. No matter what you want to study, you'd have to get some prerequisites out of the way, such as Math and English Composition. (And if you're thinking Computer Science, there is a lot of Math!) It'd get you used to going to school again, and hopefully focus your goals towards a program that interests you.
posted by spinifex23 at 9:25 AM on September 1, 2012

The answer to your question is "Yes!"

I started out at a local community college, then I transferred to a state university, and then I attended and graduated from an Ivy League university.

My advice, as far as the logistics are concerned, is starting out at a community college to get your feet wet and build good study and good student skills. It is absolutely critical to learn the demands of higher education in order to be a successful college student.

State universities are great for bachelor's, master's, and Ph.D's. More challenging than community colleges, but good schools nonetheless.

At this point, I would not recommend even thinking about an Ivy League education. First of all, contrary to what was mentioned above about getting a free ride to Cornell, I have never seen a bachelor's degree student at Cornell get free tuition and living expenses paid by the school. Sometimes that happens in Master's and Ph.D programs when an applicant can qualify for a teaching/research assistantship or fellowship, where they are, in essence, working for the university. Another thing to consider about the Ivy League is that not only are the classes very academically rigorous, but the environment is very high pressure also.

One other aspect of pursuing a college education that I would be derelict to not mention is the kind of economy we live in now. There are thousands upon thousands of well-educated college graduates that can't even get a job in their field because the field is glutted with qualified applicants. So even if you decide to further your education, it would be very wise to gain as much work experience in your area of interest as possible, including volunteering, internships, and professional development classes.

Going to college and completing a degree program is a wonderful life endeavor. It can enrich your life in ways that nothing else can, but it's not the "golden ticket" it once was to succeed professionally. Take some time to figure out what you want to do in your career, research the field and what it requires, look into some colleges, and the rest will become clearer after a while. Good luck to you.
posted by strelitzia at 1:34 PM on September 6, 2012

Thanks so much for all the responses! I took a while to think them over, as they seemed to do a good job of running the gamut and hit a couple of buttons that needed their wiring investigated.

joan holloway: they don't, necessarily, but there is room for the occasional skill-specific class or workshop. and my level of participation on the team is such that being unavailable even for serious part-time schooling would undermine the entire point of my role pretty significantly. good idea for some, though, surely!

Pogo Fuzzybutt: that does help, a lot. I may well memail you once I've got my target more clearly in mind and appreciate the gesture.

pla: unfortunately, after being the person who has done the job for a decade and being shifted out for a cheaper person with a degree, I have learned that there are certain advantages to the piece of paper/letters after the name that I had gone so long believing I could ultimately do without. in 2 of the last 3 places I worked, level of degree was a big deal to most of the people who made team responsibility decisions, and it was definitely to my detriment to not have even an Associates. I do appreciate the viewpoint, though, as it made me think my intentions through quite a bit more.

cushie: definitely intending on community college to start, albeit probably not with the intention of a high-profile school at the end. somewhere solid and near one of my three support systems is more likely. the encouragement is extremely appreciated, though. have looked through that question - it has been a favourite for a while, actually.

sebastienbailard: sadly, this is no longer the case in most shops capable of providing livable wage and benefits. and, even if it were, part of the reason I'm at this crossroads is realising that with all the time I could have devoted to learning that stuff and didn't, I really do need the structure and guidance of a formal class to get the underpinnings sorted and absorb the theory and tradition behind it all to extract the most value.

hydropsyche: good to know! thank you! the "worth it" pondering was based on the conclusions drawn in the linked video, which seemed to do a good job of breaking down numbers and outcomes pretty well, and made me want a more personalised analysis for myself.

immlass: that's great! thank you!

summerstorm: that's an interesting idea. hm! I do live quite near a state university, and many of my skills are applicable to several environments there. definitely worth looking into - thank you! infini, I appreciate the endorsement, too.

tremspeed: interesting idea as far as working and learning both full-time, but most of the times you mention for doing the class thing are when I desperately need my brain to be focusing on the very little rest I get or tasks I'm already committed to. I wanted to be the kind of person who could rock that double-burden thing, but it turned out very poorly. now it would be a triple-burden, and the cost of failure would be even higher. thinking it through again was valuable, though, so thanks for that and the musings on the credit portion.

parrot person: I totally get where you're coming from. these are things I am passionate about, though, and definitely more passionate about than the random placements I've managed thus far. Based on more than 25yrs in the workforce with an emphasis on the last 12, my specific skillset is treated much, much, much better with even the tiniest degree, and the things I'd rather be doing are even more that way. thank you for the chance to think about that leg of the path again, though. and, yeah, as already mentioned, no one should assume at this point that even a well-known app developer can get a real position with salary and insurance without a degree.

spinifex23 (hi!): thanks for the encouragement! I feel rah-rah'd and that's a good thing, for once! the reminder to go talk to the community college people is a good one. need to do that, for sure.

strelitzia: good stuff, thank you. definitely going the community college route for the 2yr degree if I do this, then probably a state or higher-quality city university. all of the degrees I've selected are the type where I can find more than one way of getting experience added to my prior abilities/credentials and the new education...but I do need to remember to look into which ones have the better forecasts over a decade's time.

would have made you all "best answer", but ended up just doing those that gave me action items. thanks again!
posted by batmonkey at 10:10 PM on September 19, 2012

« Older Replace my discontinued face illuminator makeup   |   Drip Drip Drip Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.