Nontraditional. Returning? Student?
September 29, 2014 8:53 PM   Subscribe

Broke and in default on old student loans. Is it possible to go back to school?

Aaah, age 20, those innocent and hopeful days. In the job market, sorta, for a couple of years, and I realized I was never going to get anywhere if I didn't go back to school and finish a BA. So I did. But, um, maybe not the right one.

Fast-forward-- age 34, and pretty screwed. It's been an interesting 11 years since I graduated, but I haven't exactly managed the career thing. And I am poor. Relentlessly, chronically, excruciatingly poor. And I'm in years' worth of default on my student loans. I'm hardly keeping my head above water with the crap jobs I can get, and I'm afraid to know how deep in debt I am, but it ain't good. But I am tired of customer service. Oh god, I am tired of it. I loved school, I was damn good at it, and I would like to go back and study something a little more useful this time. But, given my finances, is there any way at all that I can do that?

My major was Linguistics, which is pretty convincing as a soft science on the edge of hard. I had a great GPA, awards, good relationships with my professors. Does any of that matter anymore? Could an eleven-year-old degree get me into grad school, or would I have to get another BA? Would credits transfer? I've looked into this, but not found anything definitive, so I am asking for other people's experiences. And does any of this matter if I can't pay off my loans first?

Lost. Help?
posted by Because to Education (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Maybe I missed it, but what are you looking to study? There are a lot of good jobs for which having a degree is required (or nearly so), but what the degree is in isn't so critical. For those, it would probably be more profitable to spend time learning those skills in some other way than going back to school.

As one isolated example, I'm in software development, but my degree is in something completely unrelated (not even remotely a science - linguistics is much closer than my degree is). And I've worked at some of the biggest, most famous and prestigious tech companies in the world. My lack of a degree in CS specifically is honestly sometimes more of a selling point than a hindrance (I can prove I can do the job, and I have a unique perspective on things). If you have the aptitude for it, programming is something you can learn either on your own or from a few evening classes, rather than dropping everything and racking up more debt for another degree. I'm sure there are other career paths like that too. If I were in your shoes, I'd be looking for one of those that appeal to me rather than considering incurring more loan debt.
posted by primethyme at 9:02 PM on September 29, 2014 [6 favorites]

Unfortunately, grad school is often a path into joblessness and poverty rather than out of it (I'm a final-year PhD student myself, so I should know!). You don't seem to have mentioned what you're hoping to study, but many grad school disciplines do not readily lead to jobs - even those that you might suspect otherwise about. Even the academic disciplines that are marketable are generally one of the most circuitous ways towards whatever job people end up ultimately getting after the degree. Also, if you can't get into a top-ranked and fully-funded grad program, it's generally not worth it (except for professional degrees like medicine and maybe law). People might be able to give you more useful advice if you could provide more specifics, but I would urge you to research career paths and employment rates *before* taking the leap, as there's a reasonably good chance you'd be jumping from the frying pan into the fire.
posted by ClaireBear at 9:24 PM on September 29, 2014 [4 favorites]

Seconding the recommendation for looking into web/software development/IT. Something to consider would be doing a three month bootcamp. There are some that don't charge tuition fees up front and ask instead for a small percentage of your first year's wage in a job in the field.
posted by kinddieserzeit at 9:27 PM on September 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

Getting into school may not be an issue for you. Getting Title IV funds or school-based grants may, given your default status.
posted by yellowcandy at 9:59 PM on September 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

This was very true during the recession when people lost their jobs and had few prospects:

Life sucks, I'm going back to school, where I knew where I stood because I got graded on everything, where it was okay to be living hand to mouth and where I didn't have any worries about my career path because I was still learning.

If you owe money on student loans, you probably aren't going to get any more. You can apply for scholarships I suppose, or grants. But that's a slog.

A masters degree doesn't guarantee you a job, not even close. In many cases it guarantees you more debt and even fewer prospects, and you'll be that much more depressed about the whole thing.

Now, if you were proposing to go back to school for an RN, or taking some classes to turn Linguistics into teaching, then I might think that would be a good thing.

Does your job offer a Tuition Aid Program? My customer service job did and it paid for my entire MBA. (Also, no ticket to a better job, just sort of an interesting thing to do.)

If you want out of the Customer Service Ghetto, I recommend learning a software program and becoming an administrator. I learned But you can certify in Oracle, SAP, Microsoft Dynamics, etc.

Skills get you out of your predicament, not education. It's a significant distinction.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:36 AM on September 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

I had a great GPA, awards, good relationships with my professors. Does any of that matter anymore?

Yes, it does. The GPA matters the most, since grad schools want students with high undergrad GPAs in order to boost their own rankings. The awards might matter, though that's a bit more iffy. The good relationships with your professors only matter if you're still in touch or can get in touch (can you?).

You're also in a good place if you can knock your admission exam (ex: GRE, LSAT, etc) out of the park, because that gets calculated in the grad school's ranking, too. That's much less important than your undergrad GPA, though.

Could an eleven-year-old degree get me into grad school, or would I have to get another BA?

Yes, of course. They don't expire.

Would credits transfer?

I don't understand what you mean? Your undergrad credits will not transfer for use toward your grad degree. If you mean, can you use your undergrad credits to get a second BA, then I don't know, but I also don't think you need a second BA.

If you're looking to go to grad school for a subject that you'd need to take prereqs for, then you can just take the prereqs, you don't need a whole new degree. For prereqs, some grad schools are OK with community college credits, some require them to come from a university -- it depends more on the subject than on the individual school whether they're OK with community college credit or not, though. (This info should be on their schools' websites).

If you were a strong student in undergrad and enjoy school, I think that you're probably going to want to go to grad school instead of just picking up a certificate or something from your local community college. Community college courses are aimed at college underclassmen, so they're likely going to be very easy for you and therefore not all that enjoyable or likely to help you build skills or make connections or open very many doors professionally (unless you're looking to learn a vocation, in which case they can be great).

Are you interested in a particular subject for your grad degree?

I also disagree that grad degrees are useless -- it depends on what you want to do with yours. Some fields either require grad degrees outright or virtually everybody in the field has one (or more) and you're not going to break into the field if you don't, too. If you were a strong student in undergrad and enjoyed school generally, you've also got a good shot of doing well in a career/field that places an emphasis on your education and that is "knowledge-based." In your shoes, I personally would pursue going back to school.

And does any of this matter if I can't pay off my loans first?

You're probably going to have a hard time getting any more loans, which could be a problem. It's worth it to try and negotiate and/or see if you're granted scholarships and grants, but virtually everyone needs to take out loans at some point in grad school, since even a tuition waiver + stipend is likely to keep you right at the poverty line. It's also extremely difficult to work while you're in school full time, so don't count on being able to make money that way while you're a student.

I haven't been in your exact position w/r/t defaulted loans, but I think the first thing you should do is research how to get the loans in good standing. There may be a way to get forbearance or to set up a new payment plan, etc etc etc. Some of this depends on whether your loans are federal or private or both (?). You can be admitted to schools while in default on your loans, but it's likely to mess up your financial aid by quite a bit -- and since you're unlikely to be able to pay to go to school, any admittances you get are sort of worthless.

Since you'd likely be looking at applying to schools about a year from now (i.e., next fall), I think your first step should be to talk to the loan companies and see if you can work out anyway of getting your loans in good standing, and your second step should be looking into pre-reqs and getting started on those. Your pre-req classes are also likely where at least one of your letters of rec is going to come from, so choose your professors fairly carefully and work hard in the classes.
posted by rue72 at 7:23 AM on September 30, 2014

A few more concrete recommendations in light of your situation:

1) If I were you, I would first consider whether there are any better jobs that you could get with the degree you have now. A bachelor's degree - *any* bachelor's degree - is usually your entry-card into middle-class American jobs. Typically the field that you studied is much less relevant than actually possessing the degree. I think it is quite likely that you could transition into something else with the credentials you have now.

2) If you are determined to get another degree to enable your career change, it seems to me that your first priority should be locating a field that has excellent job prospects, and picking a job in that field that is attainable for you. If I were you, I'd personally be looking towards the medical field, engineering, and comp sci, as those seem to me the fields where there is a comparative surplus of jobs relative to other fields. Maybe others can chime in about other good options. If you don't want to move, you should check the employment prospects in your area for the jobs that you are interested in (although bear in mind that schools often fudge the numbers about their graduates' success).

3) Some programs, like nursing, have prerequisites. Doing these would be an advantage for you because it would give you more current grades and recommendations, which would help your application to these programs. Some fields have accelerated programs for those already in possession of a degree. Before jumping into a field, you should also do some volunteering or shadowing or something comparable to make sure that you like it tolerably well.

Let's use nursing as an example, since it's the field I'm most familiar with. Nursing in particular has some 12-18 month accelerated programs if you already have a degree. If you, for instance, chose nursing, you could volunteer a a few hours week and take your prereqs on top of your job, and if all of that confirmed your desire to enter the field, you'd be all set with current grades and recs to apply to accelerated programs. Instead of volunteering, you could also do a CNA course, and then get paid while you get some experience in the field, before applying to nursing school (and if you chose your workplace wisely, you might even get tuition help for your nursing degree).

4) As I just mentioned, many workplaces offer tuition assistance. Some universities offer 90% off their courses to their own employees. You should look into the possibility of finding one of these jobs, and then working full-time (or half-time) while taking heavily subsidized courses - this might be a good cheap way to get a marketable degree or qualification.

5) Don't take out loans to do a degree that doesn't have very firm job prospects at the end. And, even if you get grants/scholarships, don't go to graduate school in the humanities, the social sciences, or anything that doesn't include a well-trodden path to a career at the end of it (and even advanced degrees in things like biology might be in this category).
posted by ClaireBear at 12:03 PM on September 30, 2014

I graduated with a BA in Linguistics from a Russian uni and my career is in software development. I started at 25, not 34, but I know other immigrants who started later, in their late 40's-early 50's even, and are doing great. Seconding everyone who recommends looking into a career in programming... I recently suggested this series of steps to someone looking to get into UX but they are applicable to any area of software development. Salesforce or another popular business software package is another great idea, and I haven't seen anyone mention QA or technical writing yet, which are two other great programming-adjacent options.

It all depends on your preferences and, most importantly, what actual jobs are available in your area. I am a huge fan of right-to-left planning, so I would search Indeed/Monster/etc. for actual jobs in your city and then work backwards from the job descriptions to master the skillsets required.

Please feel free to email me if you have questions or want help on what classes are best to take or what other resources are available.
posted by rada at 12:07 PM on September 30, 2014

Ruthless Bunny, Rada and ClaireBear have great suggestions. I agree with them that developing your skills, rather than pursuing a master's degree, might be your best bet now. You do have a B.A., and many places don't really care what your B.A. was in, just that you have one. Most people who don't have a very specifically-directed degree (such as engineering) don't work in the field that they studied.

Have you tried signing up with temp agencies to do general office work, check out different workplaces and industries, and possibly get your foot in the door that way? Having skills in Excel and Word is pretty much a necessity, but you can teach yourself those programs or learn them through an online service like Going the temp-agency route can get you other jobs than customer service, which you might like better.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 12:36 PM on September 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

I went back for basically the same reason and I did mine at UMass because they accepted my 14 year old credits, which Drexel unfortunately wouldn't. It was important to me to attend online school at a brick & mortar university and there weren't quite as many programs available when I started.
posted by kattyann at 6:38 PM on September 30, 2014

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