Going Back to College During the Pandemic

If you’ve lost your job due to COVID-19, going back to school may be the smart move. Here’s a few tips on how to get started.

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Let’s not beat around the bush. This has been an extremely tough time for so many people, around the world, and all across the United States. The current pandemic has stretched our patience, our budgets, our health, and our wellbeing beyond words. Besides the number of global and American lives lost, for many people this time has been even worse for one simple reason: they lost their job.

Statistics vary on the number of Americans who lost their employment due to COVID-19; a Wall Street Journal piece from June suggests between 20 million and 40 million. An article in the New York Times from October 1 notes that 787,000 Americans filed for unemployment for the VERY FIRST TIME the last full week of September, “roughly four times the weekly tally of claims before the pandemic.”

For those recent college graduates, or soon to be college graduates, the numbers were bleak even before the pandemic struck. A November 2019 article by Jack Kelly in Forbes documents how, according to The New York Federal Reserve, “college graduates—defined as ages 22 to 27 years old, holding a bachelor’s degree or higher—are more likely to be unemployed and underemployed compared to overall workers.” And that’s pre-global pandemic.

But the numbers can only illustrate so much. The reality is each of those numbers represents a person, and all of those people are now looking for answers, a next step, a sense of what the future may hold. The obvious answer, which basically goes without saying, is to find another job. But we all know that’s way way easier said than done, especially right now. Besides the deaths and chaos, COVID-19 has also wreaked havoc on our economic markets, job stability, even changing the types of jobs that are hiring now (like a warehouse worker or delivery person) that might be downsized later.

So what can you do? Allow me to suggest going back to school. I’m not the first to offer that solution. Nor will I be the last. But that, in and of itself, says something about going back to school as a possibility.

1. The job market, despite the pandemic’s best efforts, still has demands. There are jobs that are becoming more valuable as a result of this crisis and there are jobs that were already valuable before.

2. Going back to school is reliable, with many different institutions both willing and ready with options for returning students.

3. It’s flexible, with the ability to learn entirely new skills, or build off of existing ones in a variety of different program types, including graduate school, associates degrees, or acquiring a certificate.

4. It’s an option that is open to everyone, regardless of career status, age, geography, technological capabilities, and more, with scholarships and financial aid available to many folks who need or want it.

I’ll be going into all four of those in more detail a bit further down in this piece, but for now I want to quote Rebecca Klein-Collins, the associate vice president of research at the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning and the author of Never Too Late: The Adult Student’s Guide to College (2018, The New Press). In an interview from December 2018 with N.P.R. Klein-Collins said: “Find a place that acknowledges who you are at this stage in your life.”

And that’s what this blog-tastical piece of blogging wisdom is striving to accomplish today. Knowing who and where you are at this point and finding a school, a program, an option that will work given everything, and I mean everything, going on.

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1. The Demands of the Market

The pandemic is still surging and new updates on potential vaccinations (at least stateside) remain anyone’s guess (unless, is that you, Dr. Fauci?). If you’ve lost your job, you might be thinking a change of career is in order, but you also want to know beforehand what fields are worth exploring, and thus know what to pursue for study. Disaster after disaster seems to be right around the corner. Wouldn’t it be great if there were programs that not only taught you how to prepare for emergencies, but set you up to get paid for it? Try Emergency Management or disaster relief; climate change is causing extreme weather conditions the world over. The likelihood is that this will force mass migrations in the years to come, straining civilian, government, and military agencies. A good way to ensure job security is to find a job that tackles these looming issues head-on.

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There are a few jobs that, regardless of global circumstance, remain relatively safe bets. For example, companies and people will always need accountants. According to a 2019 article in Business Insider, the accounting field saw 13% growth “and it’s expected to keep growing.” The same article mentions the growing importance of computing jobs, including in all aspects of computing ranging from Information Technology (aka your IT gal/guy) to cybersecurity. As more of the world runs digitally and virtually, more folks who don’t just program, but also maintain and secure those programs are needed. I’m sorry to report that it won’t be as cool as Neo in The Matrix, but at least the job prospects look good.

But what if you want more hands-on work with others? You might be a people person, or just don’t want to be staring into a screen all day (okay, okay for more of the day than you already do). Other growing careers include Nursing, which is expected to grow 7% by 2029, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Don’t forget the aging baby boomer population, which indicates that studying gerontology (the actual field of learning how to tend to elderly populations) is worthwhile too.

Well, let’s say you like people, but you don’t like people enough to want to spend time around aging baby boomers. People like to live in nice digs, and new buildings will always be needed (especially to accommodate all those climate refugees, right?). Construction Management, along with landscape architecture, building design, and basically anything dwelling related, meet all those needs and are all expected to see job growth.

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2. Reliability

This one is relatively straightforward. Even with everything going on, you and I are certainly not the first folks to need to go back to school. It’s been a tool in the toolbox for a long time; according to HuffPost, from 2000 to 2010 the National Center for Education Statistics revealed a 42 percent increase in college students aged 25 or older. When facing this kind of job market, or any job market really, prospective employers want you to prove to them that you have what it takes to handle a new job. One of the most reliable ways of demonstrating your skillset is by having the education (that you’ve now gone out and received) speak for itself. 

There’s one other thing I’d like to add. Some people may feel some residual shame or fear or humiliation about returning to school. I don’t want to dwell on this for too long, but I’ll say that there is no shame in learning more, no shame in expanding your knowledge, and no shame in professing not to know everything there is to know. No single person knows everything. With the statistics that I shared above, it’s clear you’re not alone in wanting or needing to go back to school anyway. And if anyone says different and tries to make you ashamed of your choice, well, you can cite the above stats and play the ‘I’m expanding my mind, what have you done lately?’ card.

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3. Flexibility

Gone are the days where the only returning to school options were getting an M.B.A. or going to Law School. And that’s great. Going back to college has never been more flexible, for a whole host of reasons. But here I’d like to focus on the sheer diversity of program and degree types.

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Let’s say you’ve lost your job, as so many Americans have. But you don’t want to deal with, or don’t have the time for, three or four or five years of graduate school (and don’t want pay for it, which makes perfect sense). Depending on your career or past jobs, you could pursue a certificate, which will add accreditation to your resume and make you stand out as an applicant.

Or, let’s say you take this most recent lay-off as a sign that you want to make a change in your career. You’ve been working 60-hour weeks for years now. You’ve dedicated so much time, energy, resolve, articulating other people’s visions or tasks. What better way to test the waters of a new life course than to swim after a hobby you’ve always wanted to try but never had the time for—like horticulture, calligraphy, opening your own business. The list literally goes on and on.

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4. Open to All

This is another way to talk about flexibility, but more specifically with regard to the possibilities of how you learn, not so much what you learn. The choices abound. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, there are 1,167 community colleges spread across the United States. An article on universitiesabroad.com indicates that there are almost 1,600 certificate programs in a broad array of fields around the United States as well. Faculty should, and many will, recognize you bring your own set of experiences and knowledge to the table.

These aren’t your granddad or even your dad’s continuing education programs. Technology, aka the World Wide Web, has been a mixed blessing (which we don’t need to go into), but one absolute perk has been the rise of online learning options. You can continue your learning and earn your degree from the comfort of your dining room table, or couch, or massage chair (I don’t know where you learn best!). The point is (and as this pandemic switch to video calls and conferences proves) schooling online, especially for adults, is not only feasible, but in some ways preferred.

Learning how to navigate online schoolwork is literally its own skill as more jobs transition to being fully remote. So studying online is not just educating you on a specific job, but preparing you for the work you will likely do online anyway. Your schooling is schooling you beyond your schooling. (Get it? Yeah, me neither.)

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Some Final Thoughts

Look, you know what’s best for you at the end of the day. Or you may not, which is fine too. We’re living through some of the most challenging moments in American recorded history and world-recorded history. People are suffering and looking for solutions. The days where online learning was a joke are now over, permanently I might add. You know something is here to stay when the folks at Harvard Business School rebrand their online program, as they did in 2019.

Going back to school, even virtually, might seem stressful. It’s a change of pace and routine for you in an already busy life. But, innovative education programs designed for exactly that purpose abound, filling exactly that role at affordable prices with scholarships and financial aid too. Ultimately with so much happening right now it make senses to set yourself up to come out of this pandemic stronger, better prepared—if that’s even possible—then you went in.