Whether you’re recently dealing with unemployment or job loss, or you’ve been sending out resumes for a while, heading back to school can be a great way to update your skills (i.e. make yourself more marketable in the job market), get health insurance, network with others, and start feeling productive again. Be careful, though, because you can also pile up debt, waste your time on unnecessary courses, and even lose your unemployment benefits in the process.
Before rushing back into the schoolyard, educate yourself on your options and the six potential pitfalls of returning to the classroom.
1. Losing Benefits
It seems like a no-brainer. If you lose your job, taking new courses, earning an advanced degree, or training for a new profession ought to boost your hire-ability, right? Unfortunately, enrolling in an academic program can also cut off a financial lifeline. How so? Going back to school may disqualify you for unemployment benefits.
Unemployment insurance is for people who are looking, and available, for work. It’s not a grant for self-reinvention. If you can’t prove to your state’s unemployment department that your class schedule won’t interfere with your job hunt, you may lose your right to unemployment compensation.
Workforce development programs approved by your state’s unemployment system are an exception to this rule. These short-term training courses focus on concrete job skills or retraining you for a new career. Even better, the government pays for all or part of the training program. Contact your unemployment office or federal “Career One Stop” for more information on available programs.
2. Health Insurance
COBRA payments got you down? Cut your premiums by going back to school. Many schools offer affordable group health insurance to their students. In fact, you may not even have to be a full-time student to qualify
But proceed with caution. The downside is that you may have to use the on-campus student health service for basic medical needs and referrals to specialists before your coverage kicks in. And while you can get coverage for yourself, it can be difficult to get full benefits for your family. When family coverage is available, the rates can be much higher than what you pay just for yourself.
On the other hand, there are some affordable health insurance options for the unemployed, so be sure to consider everything before moving forward.
3. Academic Overkill and Delayed Gratification
If you’re recently unemployed with no good prospects in sight, it’s easy to panic. Unfortunately, panicked people often make poor long-term decisions, like rushing into an MBA program or (heaven help us) law school in hopes of landing a better job. While grad school is a good option for some, it can cost a lot of money and, in the case of traditional classroom programs, restrict your ability to relocate for better work opportunities.
Before you hurry into the commitment of a full-time program, check out the adult and continuing education programs at local community colleges and universities. Tuition is usually cheaper than it is for academic courses and you’ll have a lot more flexibility in terms of time and mobility. You’ll gain the skills you need to land a new job without getting into debt. Plus, if your new job offers a tuition reimbursement program, you might end up with your MBA at little or no cost to yourself.
4. The Student Loan Trap
Some schools are more affordable than others. Before you commit to a school, ask about financial aid or college scholarship opportunities. State universities and community colleges usually offer low in-state tuition, while some private schools do a great job of subsidizing student costs with grants and scholarships. Be wary of a school that only offers you the option of taking out student loans. Do you really want to go from unemployed to buried in debt?
I didn’t think so.
5. Accreditation and Approval
Before you submit your application (and application fee), check out a school’s accreditation status. If your goal is to get an academic degree (i.e. an associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degree), don’t bother attending a school that isn’t regionally accredited. Some employers and licensing boards won’t recognize a diploma from a non-regionally accredited school. The same goes for non-regionally accredited colleges and universities. If you decide to switch schools or apply for an advanced degree, your credits may not transfer
Scrutinize trade and career schools with similar care. If you’re planning on entering a trade or profession that requires professional licensing, make sure that the school has approval from the pertinent licensing board. For example, if you decide to get your real estate license, contact your state’s real estate board for a list of approved schools. A diploma from a non-approved school might look mighty nice on your wall, but there won’t be a real estate license next to it.
You might also want to consider accredited online colleges and degree programs.
6. Getting a Job
Take promises of “job placement assistance” with a grain of salt. Ask the school how many of its graduates get jobs – in their field of study – within six months of graduation. If they can’t tell you this, don’t count on getting a job through the school.
Going back to school is a tempting step when you’re unemployed, and very often it’s a move in the right direction. But it’s not as simple – or affordable – as it sounds. While unemployment comes with plenty of stress and challenges, you’ll make it worse by rushing your decision. Whether it’s for your first college course or a return for an advanced degree, don’t just hide out in higher education. Do your research, made an informed decision, and then if classes are right for you, get those top grades.
What academic programs have you taken on after losing your job? Have you found the training useful for finding your next role, or do you regret the decision?
(photo credit: Jeff Ozvold)