Monday, June 30, 2014

College Mistake #1: Leaving the Workforce


As an adult, "non-traditional" online college student, I found that my peers and I faced challenges that were unique to our demographic. Many of us already had over a decade of work history; we had mortgages, car payments, and medical debt; we had families to provide for; some of us had to learn how to use new technology in order to access our classes, and complete coursework; and every single one of us chose to attend an expensive and private for-profit college for various reasons.

I saw how these challenges prevented some of my fellow classmates from completing college, and know from firsthand experience how these challenges can become barriers to earning our degrees.

Unfortunately I am not a statistical anomaly; I am an adult, college dropout who made three grave mistakes: leaving the workforce to attend college full-time, not understanding the limits of government-sponsored financial aid, and not anticipating the impact haters would have on my dream of higher education. This week we'll discuss my first mistake.

Leaving the Workforce

I was employed when I registered for classes, and I was employed during the first semester of my freshman year. My job wasn't the greatest job; I was subjected to discriminatory behavior, the work itself was physically repetitive and painful, and the hiring and disciplinary practices were inconsistent and unethical. Mike (my "domestic partner") had a decent job that could support the two of us. Since the environment where I worked was dreadful, we decided that I should leave and attend college full-time so that I could earn my degree faster. I resigned my position at the company, and focused on attending college and networking.

Old-School Thinking

Almost a year later, Mike was laid off. Fortunately his unemployment check was enough to support both of us; however, we weren't able to put money into savings. I started looking for work in my field of study, HR, or work with skills that could be transferred over to HR. Since I was in college and working on getting a degree, I assumed that employers would be willing to hire me on. About 10 years ago, this would have held true; however, I quickly learned that this is "old school" thinking, and a good way to stay unemployed while attending college. Here's why:

Gap in Work History

I had a one-year gap in my work history. Even though I could give a valid reason for that gap, employers were not interested. All employers saw was a black hole on my resume without any recent work experience or job stability.

"Youngest Nearby Black Hole" by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center CC By-NC 2.0
I bet when you first looked at the above image, all you saw was the black hole. It's actually a screenshot of my resume with a black hole superimposed on top. That's what a huge employment gap looks like to a manager. If you remember just one thing about this article, remember that!

Lack of Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities

Because of that gap in my work history, I was unable to demonstrate to employers that I could apply what I was learning in college. It didn't matter that I was making straight A's, and it didn't matter that I belonged to a honor society for adult students. I literally had nothing to show for all of the time and effort I expended to earn those grades. 

Lesson Learned

You know those "unique challenges" that I mentioned earlier? They are generally called "bills" or "expenses," and you need money to cover those. It is unlikely that government-sponsored financial aid will provide you with enough money to complete four years' of college and support yourself. No worries, because you have several options to help you out with that:

Keep Your Current Job

For those of us who are planning to retire from our current employers, this is a no-brainer; you are going to college in the hopes of moving up within the company. Your company probably offers some kind of tuition-reimbursement package. If you are laid off, tuition-reimbursement might be offered to you as part of your severance package. This is a pretty sweet deal; more power to you!

For those of us who are working jobs in fields that are unrelated to our fields of study, dislike the company, or even dislike our jobs; we should consider staying, even if tuition reimbursement is not an option. Why? 
  1. Our financial aid will go further if we have money to cover our day-to-day expenses.
  2. We can put some money into savings for emergencies.
  3. We can start saving money to help pay for classes if/when our financial aid dries up.
  4. We can put money into savings to cover expenses while looking for another job.
  5. We can start paying on our student loans, and get tax credits on the student loan interest. More tax credits equal a bigger refund.
  6. If worse comes to worse, and we have to apply for private loans; we will actually have some income to report.
Get to Know Career Services

Most universities or colleges offer career services to students. One of the first things you should do when you are a freshman is learn more about the limitations and benefits of career services. Some colleges limit career services to posting a list of companies that have hired alumni in the past, or helping students find part-time work or internships. Other colleges' career services sponsor job fairs, provide resume writing services, offer career coaching, help students find full-time work, and some online colleges have partnered with large companies to offer work study programs in students' local areas. Find this information early on, and use this information to create a contingency plan.

Apply For Scholarships

While you are checking out career services, contact your financial aid advisor and ask if the college/university offers scholarship programs. Find out what you need to qualify for those scholarships, and apply for the scholarships that you qualify for. Also, do your own research on scholarships. Find out which ones you qualify for, when they are accepting applications, and when those applications are due. Set up a calendar to alert you when the scholarship application process opens and closes, and apply every chance you get.

However, don't count on being awarded one when you are creating your contingency plan. The "scholarship market" is like the current job market; it is very competitive, and only the best applications make the cut. 

Volunteer

Let's say that you are in a financially secure situation, and you don't need a job to support yourself while you are going to college. If you want a job in the field that you are studying in, you are still going to need something to add to your portfolio or resume, so volunteering may be your answer. For those of us who are unemployed, I get it; volunteering can increase expenses such as transportation. This can be particularly challenging if we live in rural areas; however, the long-term benefits of not having a black hole on our resumes could outweigh the short-term costs.

The work doesn't need to be directly related to your field of study, but it would be a good idea to determine if the knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) that you need to perform the work can be transferred to your field of study. Check out O*Net to see which KSAs you need to perform your "dream job," then compare them to the KSAs that you will need to perform the volunteer work. You might be pleasantly surprised to find plenty of matches.

**By the way... Since adult, "non-traditional" students already have a decade or more of work experience, you should check out O*Net to see what KSAs you currently have that can be transferred to your field of study so you can tailor your resume to the jobs you are applying for.**

Since you are already online, type "volunteering" into your search engine; there are many virtual volunteering options available if you're short on funds for transportation, or you are living in a one-car household. What's the worst that's going to happen? You'll have an opportunity to network, you'll be helping out an organization that you believe in, you may start to feel better about yourself and your decision to get a degree, and you'll avoid having a black hole in your work history.

I am by no means an expert on this subject. However, I do know three things:
  1. It's no fun being laughed at during interviews.
  2. It sucks being a college dropout with a huge debt hanging over your head.
  3. The first two things can sometimes be avoided by thinking ahead.

Thank you for reading.

Title image modified from original: "College Lecture" by Sean MacEntee CC By 2.0

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