For some, the career path is straight and narrow. But for most of us, it's a winding, hilly road, and we're never sure where the next turn will lead. A job that may look good on paper or sound appealing in theory may turn out to be a mismatch with your personality or work style. Perhaps you have enjoyed a rewarding and enriching career so far, but now you feel stuck in a rut and ready to shake things up and move on. Or you may be forced to find something new because of corporate downsizing or a layoff.
When adults face a career change, going back to school can be one of the first steps in implementing that change. But when you're already struggling to make ends meet and you may be in between jobs, how do you even think about going back to school and making it all work?
Going back to school wouldn't even be a possibility for a lot of folks if financial aid didn't exist. But where to begin? And who qualifies? Tim Jacobson, administrator in the financial aid office at Madison Area Technical College, understands that applying for aid can seem like a daunting task at first. 'A stumbling block is the federal application, which is 100 pages long,' says Jacobson. 'Once they get past the first hurdle, it gets easier.'
Sybil Pressprich, senior counselor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Division of Continuing Studies, also mentions the hurdles adult learners may face. 'Pursuing continuing education, either for retraining or professional or personal development, can be pretty confusing,' she says.
First, returning students need to figure out what sort of program they'll be following, because this determines what sort of financial aid is available to them.
The UW offers adults several options. Students can take university credit classes whether or not they're pursuing a degree. There are also post-baccalaureate Capstone Certificates, for someone who already has a bachelor's degree but wants specialized training in areas like global health, laboratory quality management or school administration, to name a few. Adults can also register as a special or guest student in order to take credit courses for professional development or to satisfy entrance requirements to graduate school. Last, adults may choose to take noncredit courses to earn Continuing Education Credits (CEUs) for job retraining. Which you choose determines the type of financial assistance available.
Programs at MATC include earning an associate degree or a technical diploma, the latter emphasizing more hands-on skills. Students interested in eventually pursuing a bachelor's degree can register for the college transfer option and make a smooth transition to a four-year college or university when they're ready. MATC also offers an individualized technical studies degree, which allows qualified individuals to plan their own course of study in order to meet career goals. MATC's many certificate programs would be ideal for career-changing adults who need a specific skill-set for a new job.
Other local schools that offer special programs for adult learners include: Edgewood College, with graduate and professional studies programs in business, psychology and computer information systems geared specifically toward working adults; Lakeland College, with undergraduate and graduate programs in addition to corporate training and CPA preparation programs; Cardinal Stritch, with its 'University Outreach' program that provides classes and degree programs in nontraditional formats, specifically in education and nursing; Concordia University, with post-baccalaureate certification for students with a bachelor's degree who want to pursue a teaching career.
In order to qualify for federal financial aid, students must be pursuing a degree (associate or higher), enrolled in a minimum of six credits (four for graduate students) at a college or university, maintain a minimum grade point average (typically C or better) and complete at least two-thirds of the credits that they attempt each semester.
Students can fill out the federal application, known as a FAFSA, online at www.fafsa.ed.gov. The process can take anywhere from a half-hour to an hour, but you will receive instant notification of your financial aid status after completing the application. You should have your personal financial information handy, since things like last year's income and household size can affect the amount of a grant you will receive. There are Web sites that will assist you with the online application process, for a fee. MATC holds FAFSA workshops twice a week, with counselors available to help students understand and complete the process.
In 2006, the standard aid amount was $6,625 for first-year students and $7,500 for students in their second and subsequent years. In 2007, the amounts are expected to be $7,500 for first-year students and $8,500 for students in their second and subsequent years. This allows students to cover tuition and extras such as books, to a certain extent.
State aid is available for those who are enrolled at least half-time in a degree or certificate program. But the first step in qualifying is still to complete the federal FAFSA form.
Despite a steady increase in students applying for loans and grants over the last 10-15 years, federal and state levels have been capped off. Students may have to borrow money through a private lender. Scholarships are also an option, through the school or academic department. Many scholarships are extremely specific. They're out there for creative writers, vegetarians, 'any niche you can think of,' says Tim Jacobson, mentioning that MATC's Scholarship Guide contains information on 'hundreds of scholarships from private organizations and donors willing and eager to assist MATC students achieve academic success.'
The UW also has scholarships specifically geared toward adult learners, including the returning adult and single-parent scholarships. Edgewood, Lakeland, Cardinal Stritch and Concordia have similar scholarship and grant options for returning adults.
If you're planning on balancing work and school, check with your employer for aid, including tuition reimbursement programs, which may apply to obtaining a degree, credit or noncredit coursework, or even CEU coursework.
If you're out of a job because of a layoff or corporate restructuring, the Dane County Job Center offers counseling regarding job training and career planning and may key you in to special state and federal programs for displaced workers.
The UW also administers a continuing education grant, which 'is meant to give folks with financial need and who have been out of school for a while a financial jumpstart with their schooling,' says Katia Albright, the counselor responsible for administering the grant. It's for those without other options for paying for school and attending on a less-than-part-time basis ' useful for someone who's testing the waters on a career change.
Recipients of the continuing education grant are selected on the basis of financial need, clearly expressed educational goals, and significant interruption in formal education (five years or more). 'We don't have an income cutoff because adults have such different demands on them, which vary from the number of dependents to medical expenses,' Albright explains. The application is 12 pages long, but 'if someone has the necessary information gathered, they should be able to complete the application in approximately 15 minutes,' says Albright.
If you're looking to jumpstart your career this summer or fall, this is the prime time to start thinking about how to proceed. Deadlines for many of the loans and grants are in spring. Federal financial aid applications are due April 15 for the following school year. May 1 is the due date for the UW-Madison continuing education grant for summer enrollment.
Finding financial resources to go back to school whether for a single class or a full degree is possible, but it's going to take some legwork ' or at least some time. Don't wait until the last minute.
Financial aid resources for adult students
Financial Aid Office at MATC
UW-Madison Adult and Student Services Center
UW-Madison Financial Aid / Scholarship Information
Dane County Job Center
Wisconsin Higher Educational Aids Board