Laid off = Back to School? Not so fast…

by Lynn B. Johnson on March 12, 2013

Back to SchoolGoing to school is a typical fallback position when you’ve lost a job. My dad always says, “Time spent pursuing education is never wasted.” And a few new initials after your name will make you more desirable once you’re back on the job market, right?

Maybe, maybe not.

The past 10 years has seen a record number of people earning degrees in higher education. As of March 2011, 30.4 percent of U.S. adults aged 25 and older had earned a bachelor’s degree: the most ever in our nation’s history. Additionally, nearly 11 percent of adults had attained a graduate degree. These numbers are particularly striking when compared with the statistics from 10 years ago: 26.2 and 8.7 percent, respectively. That’s a more than 4-percent jump for bachelor’s degree holders in a mere 10-year period!

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the economic downturn might have something to do with this huge leap in the improved education of our nation’s adults. In addition to indoctrinating high-school students about the importance of a college degree for career success, unemployed and underemployed adults often see additional education as a chance to hone skills and become a more in-demand employee. Student loans typically have low-interest rates, and many universities offer fellowships for non-traditional or returning students. If you are unemployed, you might even qualify for a federal grant.

That is, until the sequester hit. Now the cuts are coming. Estimated cuts for higher-education funding include:

  • $49 million in cuts to federal work-study grants
  • $37 million reduced from supplemental educational opportunity grants for low-income undergraduate students
  • Pell grants are protected from cuts in fiscal year 2013, but no protection has been guaranteed beyond that

A couple of things that aren’t expected to be cut are student-loan rates and processing times. Education Secretary Arne Duncan warned during his sequester testimony that cuts to the Student Aid Administration could slow processing of the Free Applications for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which “could mean that many students would not receive financial aid determinations and awards in time to make enrollment decisions.”

Sequestration “will also require a 7.6 percent increase to federal student loan origination fees,” according to the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. This would increase undergraduate Stafford Loan fees from 1.0 percent to 1.076 percent and PLUS loans to 4.304 percent from 4 percent.

Perhaps even more troubling is what the glut of new graduates is likely to do to the job market. I have witnessed this through my husband’s attainment of a PhD in English and his subsequent forays into the job market. It used to be that you could get a job as an assistant professor —the introductory level— and then write a book that would help you move up the academic ladder. Now, however, there are so many people clambering for these jobs in English departments that colleges and universities will hardly look at you unless you’ve already signed a book deal; the competition really is that fierce. In November 2010, the National Science Foundation reported that 49,562 people earned doctorates in the United States in 2009; the highest number ever recorded. At the same time, however, only 62.6 percent had a “definite commitment” for any type of employment.

In addition to an enormous field of candidates, there are few teaching positions available that make a terminal degree worthwhile. These days, more than 75 percent of instructors in higher education are either graduate students or adjunct faculty. Colleges love adjunct faculty because they’re 1) non-union and 2) cheap labor. Such instructors are lucky if they earn $2400 instructing a typical one-semester class. They get the bulk of the jobs and are doing the bulk of the work.

Can you pay off a $100,000+ student loan for your PhD by teaching at a rate of $2000-$2400 per class? Sure, if you can teach six classes per semester, which is about the workload required for a living adjunct wage.  Can you find six classes per semester to teach? Not likely.

Other professions are experiencing similar woes. Adults with newly minted law degrees are learning that the days of working with a firm as a junior associate —essentially getting on-the-job training while a client foots the bill— are now limited, as law-firm clients have tightened the purse strings and even severed relationships in favor of bringing in one person to serve as in-house counsel, rather than having an entire firm on retainer. This has significantly impacted the number of jobs available for new law school graduates; typically, those who are hired are the ones who received significant outside training via internships. Few law schools require internships as a graduation requirement, though, so you’ll have to hustle for opportunities while still in school.

Before you start filling out your FAFSA form, take an objective and measured look at the situation for better-educated people in your field of work and study. Chances are they’re living as hand-to-mouth as you are, but they have student loans to worry about on top of it all. The wise person in this situation will evaluate the return-on-investment and determine whether it’s truly smarter to pursue more education or just to find another job.


Lynn B. Johnson
True; that's like renting a presidential suite w/ your credit card because you're homeless.
March 17 at 22:02 pm
Courtney Barnett
It's not about earning a degree to become more of an asset to employers for many people who go back to school after being laid off. From my experience as a financial aid counselor at one the nation's largest private universities, I have learned the fact that many people who return to school after being laid off are only doing so to receive the student loans and resulting refunds. They are not thinking about the debt they'll have to deal with afterwards. They are thinking of simply living off of refunds and in many cases their grades prove their true intentions.
March 13 at 20:14 pm

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