Unemployment tuition waivers provide bridge to new opportunities
NEWARK, N.J. – Cheritta Stewart knows better than to romanticize losing her job. At least, she won’t do so without qualification.
“I guess I can call it a blessing,” said the 29-year-old Newark native, who has been unemployed since 2008. “But it hasn’t been easy.”
Stewart was a case manager assistant at First Managed Care Option in Parsippany, N.J. when she was laid off; her duties there were mostly clerical. “Had this not have happened, I would have still been there dreaming about going to school,” she said.
The New Jersey Department of Labor’s tuition waiver program for people collecting unemployment benefits provides a bridge to new careers for state residents, including hundreds from Essex County, where unemployment was 11.8 percent as of July, according to preliminary U.S. Department of Labor data. Given its two-year associate degree program, which provides a smoother on-ramp to continuing education for students who are not prepared to leap into four-year programs, Essex County College in downtown Newark has enrolled many of these waiver-wielding students.
The Office of Student Affairs reports that the number of students who applied for classes with waivers has increased in the past few years: enrollment more than doubled from 393 during the 2008-2009 academic year, to 934 during the 2009-2010 year. Students can only exercise the waivers if other financial aid does not cover their tuition in full.
While students who were interviewed said unemployment presented ongoing economic challenges, they were nonetheless grateful for the opportunity to continue their education. None of them could imagine being able to afford classes without the support.
Tykyannah Fields, 28, was laid off from her job at the Irvington Board of Education. She intends to take courses in psychology at Essex County College full-time, and then use her associate degree as a first step to launching a counseling career in the school system.
The mother of three will rely on her network of family and friends to assist her with childcare while she attends classes. Even given the toughness of being unemployed, Fields said she thinks attending school right now is a worthwhile, career-boosting time investment.
The process Fields described for qualifying for the waiver aligns with the process laid out by the state Labor Department. Unemployed applicants must first attend a series of workshops at a One-Stop Career Center. At the centers, would-be students receive career counseling to help determine a course of study. That chosen course must prepare participants for jobs in high-growth sectors as determined by the New Jersey Department of Labor.
Prospective students must also pass a qualifying exam at the center and be accepted into their chosen academic program. Waiver applicants can select courses after tuition-paying students have first reserved their seats in classes.
Waivers do not cover all costs for students, who are still responsible for books and fees. Patricia Vaden, an administrative assistant in the Essex County College student affairs office, cited the cost of books as the toughest hardship for waiver students to overcome, as those costs can approach the price of a single course.
In addition to the ailing economy, the number of students using tuition waivers has increased because of a federal policy change. According to Dean of Student Affairs Susan Mulligan, a federal policy alteration last year allowing financial aid offices to consider unemployment status when making award decisions increased enrollment by unemployed students. A March 2009 Department of Education memo advised state work force agencies to facilitate financial aid approval for the unemployed.
Despite her endorsement of the program, Stewart noted its key paradox: she had to first be laid off to receive the benefit. Describing her salary while employed as putting her “between a rock and a hard place” – she didn’t earn enough to afford school, but earned too much to qualify for substantial aid – she suggested that the program be expanded to also aid employed workers at lower income thresholds who want to advance their careers.