Going back to school after 16 years…My journey in choosing the right school for me

Next Tuesday, September 4, 2012 I will be going back to school. I am nervous, excited, thrilled and a bit on edge about taking this leap. In the fall of 1995 and the fall of 1996 I went to Minneapolis Community College for the fall semester.  In both years I was getting straight A’s until there was a snow storm on the week of finals.  I didn’t bother to find out the reschedule date. Two years in a row, mostly the same classes, I failed them all.

That was eons ago and even though I have been a successful professional in a very challenging career, I have been scared of repeating my old academic patterns. This time I decided to do my research. Going to college is a big decision. It’s expensive, time consuming; and there are hundred of options, rules, transfer policies – this is a big complex world. A world that I had no idea of. I definitely did not know it when I was 18.

At 18, I was a mess. I was newly out of the closet and yet I had no footing. I was wandering around trying to find a place where I belonged – nothing seemed to fit. Back in those days, I felt like an outsider looking into the gay community. Everywhere else I went I felt like an outside because I was gay. This is a very common experience for those who have newly come out – much less liberating than is often depicted.

One day when I was 19, I felt so alone in the world, I sat on my kitchen floor and couldn’t quit crying. I stayed there for about 6 hours. Finally I got a phone book out and called a help line. I knew I needed help, I was lost, sad, and confused. This action started my journey towards self-improvement. The operator recommended a support group in Minneapolis called the Men’s Center.

That support group changed my life and in some ways saved me. Saved me from self-destruction and isolation. All of a sudden I had a group of friends who shared their experiences and guided me. I started to see myself in a different light. I was somebody who mattered. I delved into self-discovery with a passion. I naturally wanted to contribute and give these discoveries away this to others. This journey led me to Landmark. The Landmark Forum rocked my world and turned it inside out. I walked away with freedom and possibilities. That time of my life was pure magic.

Looking back, I can now see that what I needed was a self-discovery education. I went to work on me. I have no regrets and yet I always wanted to go to college.

In my pursuits of finding the right school I had to go back in time.  A lot of my peers at the Arts High School would attend USC and NYU and other prestigious conservatories and universities. I didn’t even bother to look. Where was I? I swear I can’t remember one person ever talking to me about this; I vaguely remember going to a college fair. I must say- I never really took going to college seriously. I loved the idea of it, but in reality I wanted to live life, hang out, and work.

Now I have taken this very seriously. Over the past 5 months I have looked at around 12 different schools in and out of state. My amazing husband Nathan has been so great, because every time I would go to a different school I would come home with pamphlets and brochures. He has had to endure hours of conversations of me debating the following questions:

  • where should I go?
  • how it will work financially?
  • should I take out a school loan?
  • how can I go to school during the day and not make a lot of money? 
  • do I want to go back to work full time and go to school at night and weekends? Do I want to give up my time?
  • should I pursue the Arts again or my newer interests like marriage counseling? 

In the process, I found a school that I am really excited about – University of Phoenix. While many people relate to University of Phoenix as an online school (as I did) they have campuses all across the country. They have the largest enrollment in the U.S. with over 400,000 students. The school is fully regionally accredited- which is the highest level of accreditation a university can have. The school is designed for working adults. The average student is 36 years old. The price is less that the University of Houston and more than Community College.

When I visited their campus in Houston I wasn’t expecting much. My sister had warned me about non-traditional/ for-profit schools. One afternoon I decided to check it out because I just could not wait in-line for 2 hours again at the Community College. I had already done that several times and no one would really help and support me. It was like the DMV on steroids. 

The minute I walked through the door I fell in love with everything about University of Phoenix. The extraordinary learning resource center which was filled with alive young professionals- it’s like an iMAC computer lab/Starbucks hybrid; the Enrollment Advisor who was great, professional, caring and understood exactly what I was going through; the classes are structured in a way so I can go to class one night a week; and they gave me a beautiful folder to keep all my stuff in! 

I left there with a future I didn’t know existed. I could now both pursue my career while I fulfill on my goal to achieve a college education. I would not have to go to class 4 night a week. It would take around 4 and a 1/2 years.  How awesome, right?

Everything was awesome until I did something that I have seen a lot of people do after they first discover Landmark – I went home and did a Google search.

OMG! Landmark is like a drop in the ocean compared to all these complaints and opionions about for-profit Universities. University of Phoenix has it’s fair share. For weeks I researched and read the good, bad, and ugly. Here are the main negative reasons to attend a for-profit University that I discovered and where I see University of Phoenix fits in:

  • There are for-profits that essentially are not regionally accredited. They have some lesser accreditation and represent themselves as equal to other universities. They charge exorbitant fees and then students are left with a lot of debt and a worthless degree. This doesn’t apply to University of Phoenix.
  • The for-profit schools have a higher percentage of students who default on their loans. Read this: Federal student loan default rates on the rise – University of Phoenix. The government has wisely jumped in to deal with this across the board. Most of the defaults are from students who did not graduate. For-profits have open enrollment and higher tuitions; so if someone is not ready for school they fail out with a lot of student debt. Two years ago University of Phoenix implemented a 3-week Orientation that is mandatory. 80% of the students chose to continue. Since this change, enrollments have gone down for the school but drop-out rates have also decreased.
  • The for-profits used to pay their Enrollment Advisors based on the number of people they enrolled until the government stopped it. University of Phoenix was definitely guilty of this. University of Phoenix has not had this practice since 2010. The enrollment advisor I met was professional, very helpful and supportive. I was not pushed, called, or pressured in any way.
  • A for-profit Degree will be laughed at or not considered by recruiters and HR departments. After speaking with a lot of people on this topic, the reality is: this is not true- at least as it pertains to University of Phoenix. University of Phoenix has an acceptable reputation and as time marches on, will gain more and more agreement. The reality is you need a degree from a regionally accredited university to meet qualifications to get an interview. The rest is up to you. In my situation, simply having a degree combined with my professional experience could give me a lot of opportunities in certain industries (like non-for-profits) that I wouldn’t have otherwise- but my experience will far out weigh my degree. I believe this is true for most successful professionals that are my age.

With having taken all of this into consideration I have made the right choice for me and I will be attending University of Phoenix. 

I learned a great lesson in all of this: My friends and peers who went to those great colleges really wanted to go to them. They worked hard for that. It was their dream. I never found a school that I really wanted to go until I was 35. It’s name is University of Phoenix. It’s untraditional, stirs up reactions both positive and negative, and it dares to take on an entire system- it’s just like me. Perfect fit. Don’t you agree?