Hidden Costs of Returning to School

March 4, 2016

amieg

Amie Griffith takes a break from her 10-hour day of work and classes on ENMU’s Portales campus.

What happens when a college student takes a long break from post-secondary education? Amie Griffith, a 2009 ENMU graduate, is finding out the hard way. Griffith, a 32-year-old Development Director at ENMU’s affiliated broadcast center, KENW, returned to Eastern last year in pursuit of her Master’s degree in Communication. She is part of a groundswell of students who interrupt tertiary education to focus on life in the “real world” — students who may find their return to formal schooling contains unpleasant surprises.

Griffith speaks with irritation of these surprises, which often come in the form of hidden financial burdens. “Even though my tuition is covered by KENW, I still end up spending all kinds of money I hadn’t expected to,” she told me. “You have to pay a fee for internet classes — and that’s another surprise, now all the classes are online — and books cost so much more than they used to. A lot of teachers make you buy directly from the bookstore, too, so you can’t really save money by going to Amazon.” Were these costs not explained to her when she applied to the graduate school? “No, not at all,” she says. “I was just told to fill out a tuition waiver, then next thing I knew, I got a bill!” This experience is something to consider for students who are confident that their employers will foot the bill for continued education.

For traditional, first-time undergraduates, the first (and biggest) hurdle is financing. The U.S. Department of Education estimates 80-85% of first-time undergraduate students now receive some form of financial aid, which means this hurdle is often cleared by scholarships and loans. A returning student like Griffith may find this is no longer the case — as an independent adult, the means test by which financial aid is awarded now applies solely to the student (rather than the student’s parents), and a working student may find her income is too high to receive much aid.

Although Griffith’s focus was on the financial aspects of returning to school, other changes to the landscape confront students who have taken a lengthy hiatus. The rising popularity of distance learning is one such change; while online classes offer unprecedented flexibility, they can also strand students in the educational weeds, with no way out when they get stuck. Kirsten Peterson, a recent graduate of ENMU’s Master’s of Communication program, told me frankly that she felt lost in many of her classes. “If I emailed a question I never knew when, or if, my professor would answer,” she said. “I have a hard time learning by just reading along, so I had a lot of questions, and I was just stuck. I was used to going to class every day and interacting with everyone in person, so it was really surprising to me that now everything is on the computer.” This question of timely interaction and assistance is compounded when both professor and student have external obligations pressing on their time.

There are solutions to these and other problems, of course. In next week’s installment we’ll take advice for nontraditional students from college advising departments, examine post-graduate financial aid options, and consider ways to arrange a full life to create room for education. While you consider the information here, you may find the following links helpful:

 

“Is an MBA Right for Me?”

“My Experience Going Back to School, 10 Years Later”

“Why I Went Back to College”

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