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Should You Go Back to School During a Recession?

Should You Go Back to School During a Recession?

Two Laid-Off Workers Rethink Careers, Rediscover Passions by Heading Back to Class

On the heels of more than 10 years as a professional journalist, Heather Lalley has found herself back in class. 

After taking a buyout from The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, then moving to Chicago to work as a freelance writer for a year, Lalley decided it was time to go back to school -- this time to become a classically trained baker.

In April 2009, Lalley, 33, took a major step toward pursuing the career she has always dreamed about by enrolling in a two-year bread-making and pastry program at the Washburne Culinary Institute.

“Freelancing was not something I saw myself doing for the long term,” says Lalley, who has baked bread on her own for years. “When I started thinking about what else I wanted to do, I settled on baking and realized that in order to do that, I’d need to go back to school.”

Recession Prompting Career Reconsiderations

In the current recession economy, millions of laid-off workers nationwide are also rethinking their career choices, leading many to go back to school.

Why? To acquire a new skill set, for one, as well as to constructively wait out the economic downturn. The challenges? Coming to terms with the reality of changing careers and recognizing that starting anew can, at times, feel pretty overwhelming.

“It’s never too late to learn something new,” says Marci Alboher, author of One Person/Multiple Careers: A New Model for Work/Life Success. “Besides, for many people, going back to school is a chance to pursue the career they always hoped they had tried for in the first place.”

Numbers reflect this trend. According to a March 2009 survey conducted by the League for Innovation in the Community College and the Campus Computing Project, 28 percent of the 120 responding community colleges reported enrollment increases of more than 10 percent from January 2008 to January 2009. Anecdotal evidence from four-year schools reveals similar trends.

Mitch Weisburgh, vice president of Academic Business Advisors, a consulting firm specializing in the higher-education market, says that in general, higher- and continuing-education enrollments skyrocket during a sagging economy.

“When people get laid off, the first thing they think about is acquiring additional skills, and the first place they want to go is back to school,” he says. “For many people, the current climate presents them with no options but to figure out what’s next, expand their horizons and start over on something entirely new.”

Coming Up with the Tuition

The government is offering support for workers who want to retrain. The $787 billion stimulus bill signed in February 2009 by President Obama includes $1.7 billion for adult employment services, including training.

Many state budgets include similar funding. Through its No Worker Left Behind program, Michigan offers unemployed and underemployed adults up to $5,000 per year for two years of retraining at a community college. Full-time college students and recent high school graduates are excluded.

Still, the overwhelming majority of returning students are paying their own way. Such was the case for Charles Villano III of Mission Beach, California. In July 2008, after a year of unemployment, Villano decided to go back to school for a graduate certificate in marketing to add to his MBA in finance.

Villano, 37, who previously worked as a manger in the pharmaceutical industry, said some of the cost of his continuing education was defrayed by the fact that he went back to his MBA alma mater, the University of San Diego. As a returning student, courses cost $1,100 per unit, as opposed to $3,300 for new students. Still, Villano had to borrow money from his parents.

“Whatever it ultimately costs me, the return trip is worthwhile, because I’m learning what I want to learn on my own terms,” he says. “At a time like this, with the economy doing badly just about everywhere, any money you can reinvest in your own skill development is going to be money well-spent.”

Budding baker Lalley agrees. Lalley, who aspires to open her own bakery when she graduates, found some scholarships at, a Monster company, and applied for others through national nonprofit food organizations such as the James Beard Foundation.

She also planned to work out a quid-pro-quo arrangement through which she could receive reduced tuition for doing some marketing for the cooking school itself.

“If you have a useful skill that can work to your advantage as you seek training for a second career, use it,” says Lalley, who blogs about her experiences at “Just because your old job isn’t necessarily relevant to the new one doesn’t mean you can’t leverage that experience to get ahead.”

Work-to-School Transition Tips

It’s not easy making the transition from full-time worker to full-time student. Here are some tips from Lalley and Villano:

  • Establish a Goal: Ask yourself what you want to do next. Research the degrees or certificates that will make achieving that goal easier.
  • Look for Creative Ways to Pay: Paying for retraining can be challenging, but not impossible. Check out scholarships, but also see if you can leverage a skill the school needs into reduced tuition.
  • Don’t Let Fear Stop You: Yes, it’s scary to start over and go back to school. But don’t let fear force you into giving up and doing something you don’t want to do.
  • Keep Networking: You never know when a contact (or a contact’s contact) might lead to a job interview and, eventually, a job. Cultivate both online and offline professional networks while in school.   
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