Fifth time's a charm?
July 10, 2013 7:26 PM   Subscribe

My college career spanned eight years, two states, and four schools. All I have to show for it is $40,000 in debt and no degree. How do I sort this mess out? Should I even try? Lots of details inside.

After taking a year off to work after high school, I attended a private university for three semesters and made decent grades. I then transferred to a different private university across the country, because they offered a better financial aid package. Due to family issues, financial instability, and unclear academic goals, I left the second school after another three semesters and returned home. I then attended a third university (public), ended up being academically disqualified for poor grades (because of ongoing depression, I rarely attended class and was given lots of W's, WU's and F's). After taking another year off to work, I attended a fourth university (public), and completed three semesters there. However, my grades were mixed and I was academically disqualified there as well because I was dealing the same ongoing issues.

So now I'm left with $40,000 in student loan debt with a shitty college transcript and an incomplete liberal arts BA to show for it. I have approximately 110 units spread out over the four schools, with tons of W's, F's and other assorted failing grades. I did earn other decent grades as well so my overall GPA is probably 2.5ish.

My question is this: is it worth taking out more loans for me to go back and try to complete the degree? I don't even know how I would be readmitted, even if it is. It would be logistically difficult as well -- I don't have parents or significant other who can offer any kind of support. I also have a full-time job which makes attending normal college classes harder. When I looked into how to be re-admitted to the 3rd or 4th school I attended, I found they required re-taking failed courses at a local community college. That doesn't work since most of those F's and W's are in upper division courses in my area of study. My reasons for wanting to complete this degree are a) just to have it done and to get the piece of paper I've already paid so much for and b) potentially open up other educational opportunities for myself -- I sort of fell into my current job and while it's stable, it's not what I want to be doing and other things I'm interested in doing require a college degree or more.

Potentially relevant details: I'm 30 and attended the various colleges between 2002 and 2010. My area of study is/was in a non-technical field. I don't make very much money currently and will be paying off my current (federal & consolidated) loans for quite some time.
posted by anonymous to Education (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Does your work offer tuition assistance? I wouldn't take on more debt, but I'd apply to a fifth school, transfer all the credits I could from all schools, and finish there. Make it a state school so it's cheaper.

In fact, I did exactly that. After a similarly, um, variously successful series of schools, I finally finished after 16 years. Went to three undergrad schools, applied to a fourth which was a state school, and transferred in all my credits. The best part about transferring is that they throw out your cumulative average. You get the credits, but aren't troubled by the past grades. I graduated summa cum laude, went to grad school in a professional program, finished in one year.

How many of the 110 units are passing? That would be your starting point. Most schools require a certain number of credits taken in-house to graduate, so you'd have to plan on taking at least that many anyway.

If your current job doesn't have tuition assistance, find one that does. Maybe even get a job at the school you'd like to graduate from? Anyway, good luck. Take it slow. Don't worry about being 30. As my father advised me when I was facing the same issue, "you're going to be 35 anyway. Might as well be 35 with a degree."
posted by clone boulevard at 7:38 PM on July 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

One other comment: You don't have to go full time. Take night classes. But keep in mind that if you go at least half time per semester, your student loans can be deferred (unless you have private loans, and maybe even then). So that might help with the cost.
posted by clone boulevard at 7:41 PM on July 10, 2013

I am 42, defaulted on 20k of student loans worked professionally for a couple decades without the degree, and am returning as a student this fall semester.

I wouldn't take on more loans if I could avoid them. I would sit with a college advisor and see where you are.

And clone boulevard has it with the idea of part time. Where's the fire? Take your time.

A lack of degree seldom has counted against me, but I would be lying if I said it never has.
posted by cjorgensen at 7:43 PM on July 10, 2013

Are there specific jobs or raises you're not getting due to the degree? Do you have a specific plan of the classes you'd need to take to finish? If so, it might be worth it. My mom went back to school with a similar varied history over about 25 years because she'd hit the degree-less ceiling. She did very well and now has exactly the job she'd been aiming for.

If it's just that the money and blank sheet of paper are niggling, I wouldn't bother. The credits won't go bad, you can go back later if you need to.
posted by tchemgrrl at 7:59 PM on July 10, 2013

In Florida, when you start at a new school you get a fresh GPA that only counts the courses taken at that school. You can also choose (more or less) which credits to transfer (thus essentially ignoring the W's). The downside is that you usually are only given credit for a portion of your credits. So, for example when enrolling at FIU (my alma mater) they would accept 60 credits or 1/2 of the amount needed to graduate.

We also have community colleges that give four year degrees (in very limited fields) which is a cheap way to get the degree. (Four years of tuition would be less then 15k.)

Unfortunately, it's hard to give you advice without knowing more about your current location. Identify the closest state school, make an appointment with an adviser and take a copy of your most recent transcript.

If you are interested in going part time, you should be able to afford to complete the degree without extra debt. If you have not defaulted and you make a low enough income you may even qualify for Pell Grants.
posted by oddman at 8:01 PM on July 10, 2013

The credits won't go bad

This is sometimes true, sometimes not. It's not something I would count on.

I've advised a number of people who were in situations similar to yours, OP, and my own undergraduate career spanned ten years. My advice is to call your local state school, explain your situation and ask for an appointment with a counselor from admissions or student services, and then assemble all your transcripts in a folder and bring them to the appointment. They should be able to tell you exactly or approximately where you would stand: your odds of admission currently, how many credits would transfer, and what additional credits you'd need for a degree. If there are multiple schools in your area, then repeat as necessary.

The logistics and opportunity costs are things you need to figure out for yourself. I have no insight about that; it's personal, and I don't know your situation. But right now you're working with back-of-the-napkin math, and there's no need to; with just a little legwork, you can get concrete data. Then you'll be in a better position to decide what's worthwhile to you.

The $40,000 is sunk cost. Don't make that part of your decision. That's not to say you should discount the debt and payments, only that you shouldn't fall into the trap of thinking, "I spent so much already, does that mean I'm foolish if I don't finish?" There are good reasons to finish, but that's not one.

Good luck. You'd be surprised how many of us there are. I finished my undergraduate degree, finally and after a brief period of thinking I never would, and then went on to law school. If you decide to do it, you can.
posted by cribcage at 8:22 PM on July 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

Well, credits "going bad" kind of depends. I don't know what state you are in, but I can answer for how they're done in California. There's an arrangement with the community colleges to transfer courses to the 4-year-schools, but credits from other schools usually just count as "bulk units." Depending on where you live, the credits from all those schools may only really be beneficial to a degree AT the schools you flunked out of. An adviser may look at the courses you took and try to determine if any of them can count towards anything at a new school.... But in general, yeah, it's kind of a sunk cost by now and all of those credits aren't really counting as a "halfway towards a degree" at any school." Public schools may be more likely to transfer than private ones, since privates kind of do their own thing.

My advice to you would be to (a) make SURE that the issues that plagued you during school, like the depression, are taken care of before you even begin to start back on the school path, and (b) start over at a community college. Seriously, you need to go to a school with lower admission qualifications and build up your record before you transfer to a 4-year college. And community college can be kind of "training wheels" to see if you can handle school now. They also may have more flexible options for schooling while being employed, since 4-years tend to run classes during the day. I think in the state that your academic career is in, you probably just need to kind of start over rather than thinking, "Hey, I can finish up in a year or two with what I already have." But you really need to talk to academic advisers about that. I'd start out talking to the ones at your local community college, maybe also the ones at one of your old schools, as to what they suggest you can do and how people can get readmitted.

I have seen people who transferred into my school with college credits from five or six or eight different schools, all over the place, community and 4-year, and eventually after like 8 years, finally got into the school. The credits didn't really count much towards their degree that I saw, but they eventually got in anyway. caveat: working full time and going to school, I am told, is incredibly damned difficult. If you already tend to have issues in academia, that is really, really something to watch out for. Maybe try taking one class one semester and see how it goes and if you can handle it--or see if you can somehow rearrange your life to be able to quit your job for school in several years. Which if you really, really want a degree, probably will need to happen at some point. Don't worry about the loans until you get to that point, though.

Good luck!
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:32 PM on July 10, 2013

I teach at a state school and advise students. Where I work is an open-enrollment school, and lots of students transfer lots of courses. You may be familliar with the transfer process from your previous institutions, but here, the way it works is that transfer admissions counsellors look over your transcript and assess each course you got a C or better in as to if it matches one of the courses offered at the university. If it does, you get university credit for the corresponding course; if not, it is transferred as generic credit. My guess is if you transferred here, you would probably manage to transfer most of the requirements for the baccalaureate core (assuming you took general education courses elsewhere) and would need to complete the major requirements in whatever your major was. Tuition is pretty cheap here.

For a non-traditional student (of which we have lots), one possible option is to take lots of courses online. More courses at more places are offered online, giving you the possibility of taking one course at a time around your work schedule. (I would advise not more than one if you are working full time, personally.) But if you have a little spare cash, you could steadily take courses towards your degree without quitting your job and without going into debt.

(Do you know what major you would be interested in? Is there an institution close to you? Can your employer be flexible with your time so that you could go take a course that was offered in the middle of the day? Would they pay?)

I'm not sure I would recommend community college courses, particularly, unless you want to take some courses to brush up on stuff---from what you've described, it sounds like you've mostly taken your lower-level requirements. But taking one course to see how things go might be a good idea.
posted by leahwrenn at 9:45 PM on July 10, 2013

Cribcage already said what I came to say: your local state school, explain your situation and ask for an appointment with a counselor from admissions or student services, and then assemble all your transcripts in a folder and bring them to the appointment. They should be able to tell you exactly or approximately where you would stand: your odds of admission currently, how many credits would transfer, and what additional credits you'd need for a degree. If there are multiple schools in your area, then repeat as necessary.

Another anecdote offered as encouragement: I was in a similar situation when I was about your age, i.e., one school, but multiple changes in major, grades all over the place, pitiful GPA. I met with an advisor and simply asked for the quickest route to a BA. Based on my credit hours, he recommended sociology. I had the good fortune of finding my personal "best teacher ever" (here's looking at you, Richard Stivers) when I enrolled in "History of Sociological Thought". This class sparked an interest in economics and I stayed an extra semester in order to minor in econ. I was 34 when I completed my grad degree in urban planning.

Upon review, I second every word of cribcage's comment.

Good luck to you.
posted by she's not there at 6:04 AM on July 11, 2013

I was you. It took me 7 years to finally get my undergrad degree (with a cum 2.0 G.P.A)

I had some Community College credits, and credits from ASU. I transferred everything to San Francisco State University. The sorted through it all, gave me credit here and there based on stuff on my transcript. Then I did 3 semesters and I was out! Yay! My company paid for my classes. They were $334 per semester (for 12 units!)

I'd advocate the Tutition Aid Program at your job, in conjunction with a state school.

Go down and talk to someone, they'll walk you through the process. Typically they'll have a number of units you need to complete for them to award you a degree from their school. I think Cal State wanted 36.

I had a weird experience at Georgia State University though. I sent my undergrad transcripts (about 5 of them) and my Grad School transcripts, and they STILL wanted me to do about 30 hours of core courses before they'd let me do the Accounting courses I really wanted for the CPA. I bagged on that, but even 25 years after my last undergrad class, they still were honoring my transferred credits.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:21 AM on July 11, 2013

If you are still under a doctor's care for depression -- or anything else that makes school harder for you -- look into the Disabled Student Services at the schools you are considering. They are not just for people who use wheelchairs, and they can help with admissions, academic advising, even financial aid. At my school, the director told me that only 10% of the people DSS served had a physical disability. I imagine that, if you are no longer under a doctor's care but were (and can prove it) when you had the most difficulty in school -- maybe they can help get those semesters set aside for admissions purposes. They can do things like that.
posted by pH Indicating Socks at 8:59 AM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Folks have given good advice on talking to admissions folks at the nearest state school, particularly re: asking for the shortest path to BA available to you.

For financing, you may already know this, but often if you work for a local/state government institution they have breaks on tuition at state schools (all sorts, from community colleges to PhD universities). I realize that you may not feel that mobile, but if your current job does not offer tuition help, angling for a city or state job may provide a little more. For example, where I live, city employees get totally free tuition at some local universities.

I also have several acquaintances who have chosen to work at a university in facilities or groundskeeping or security, where positions don't necessarily require a BA, to get the free tuition benefit that comes with a university job. Obviously you can only go part-time, but you still get to finish the degree for free, while working a paying job.

Good luck! There are a lot of non-traditional routes, and I hope you find one that works for you.
posted by lillygog at 10:42 AM on July 11, 2013

I was in a similar situation until I find out about an accredited, FULLY ONLINE degree completion program that my local university offers. Find out if a university in your state offers the same thing. My school works with an organization called Academic Partnership. I chose the degree I had the most credits towards, a Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences. The other degrees offered were in General Studies, Criminal Justice, Communication and different forms of Business.

Once you apply, your advisor can tell you what your student status is and what classes you need to graduate. That part scared me the most because like you I wasn't the best student and I had/have medical problems. BUT, I found out that I'm a senior and I need 12 classes to graduate (2 core classes and 10 upper level advanced courses). My school had a limit on the number of classes they would transfer (even credits that came from their university!), but I think I got a fair deal. One of the core classes I'm taking is a class I failed the first time around, but the others are new to me. The classes are in an 8-week format so it's like having 2 semesters in the amount of time you would usually have one.

You should also get the latest edition of the book, Earn College Credit for What You Know by CAEL. It explains how you can attempt to earn credits by creating a portfolio and taking standardized tests.
posted by 1smartcookie at 4:51 PM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

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