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Back to School

Why so many adults are risking it all to return to the classroom


On a Wednesday afternoon three years ago, Greg Kirchoff was laid off for the third time in his career. That Thursday, as he accompanied his pregnant wife to the doctor for an ultrasound, he found out she was having twins. With a family to support and a mortgage to pay on his Arlington Heights home, Kirchoff braced himself to pound the pavement in search of another corporate job, even though it was the last thing he wanted to do.

"I was working in the corporate world, but my heart was someplace else," he says. "I always thought, 'Now I'm a grown-up, and I have to provide for my family. It wouldn't be wise to put them in jeopardy.'"

But in the back of his mind, Kirchoff knew where he really belonged--in a classroom teaching history, not doing human resources for yet another uninteresting company that would likely give him his fourth pink slip before his gold watch. He kept looking. No one was hiring. He couldn't even get an interview.

"At that point I thought, 'I've been downsized a couple of times, and do I really enjoy getting up in the morning and going to work?'" says Kirchoff, 43. "I said 'What do I do next?'"

Encouragement from his wife, Joy, and a gift of $10,000 from a friend who desperately wanted to see Kirchoff give his dream a shot helped him join the growing number of adults turning an economic slump into an opportunity to go back to school. Though it was tough to live on one income, Kirchoff and his family managed while he took classes at National Lewis University from 2003 to 2004.

Chris Anderson, a spokesperson for National Lewis, says enrollment has been up sharply in the last few years, particularly after major layoffs at local companies like Motorola and Sears. The university, which has five campuses in and around Chicago, offers masters and undergraduate programs built around the needs of older, non-traditional students.

Anderson says National Lewis has had lawyers, bankers and even dentists showing up to shift gears. While the economy has played a significant role in their decisions to go back to school, Anderson also thinks events such as 9/11 and an overall desire to slow down after what he calls the "go-go" 90s have created an urge to do something more fulfilling.

"People get to a certain age in their careers and they start looking for something that has more meaning, something that makes a difference in individual lives, something more satisfying," Anderson says. "I think it's both an emotional and philosophical shift later in life, and in some cases, it's a necessity."

The number of Illinois students aged 24 years and older applying for financial assistance has risen 22 percent since 1995, says Lori Reimers, director of state relations for the Illinois Student Assistance Commission.

"We have seen an increase in students going back to school," Reimers says. "That had a lot to do with the economy and people wanting to go back to improve their job skills or try a whole new career."

Because of the jump in older adults seeking financial aid, Reimers says the Illinois Student Assistance Commission recently adjusted its grant program to allow students to receive money even if they are only taking one class. Before, students had to be attending school at least halftime to qualify for assistance.

"We know a lot of adults who are going back to school still work," Reimers says. "At least they're getting a degree, even if it takes a little longer."

Although layoffs and a scarcity of jobs have forced many Americans back to school, Reimers says she views this trend as positive.

"Anytime people are adding to their education it means they're

improving their job skills," she says. "It's a driving force of our economic development in our state. You're helping people improve their employability, which means your businesses have better employees. Hopefully they're making bigger salaries and adding to the tax base."

Paul Myer, Chicago campus director for Northwestern Business College, agrees. Gone are the days when an individual worked for the same company for 30 years and retired, he says.

"It's more likely people will go through two or more careers in their lifetime," Myer says. "As a result of that, they need education. I think it creates more personal growth. The benefit to this is you're not going to get stale."

Most of the students attending Northwestern Business College, which offers an associate's degree in applied science, are coming from dead-end jobs and looking for careers in business, health care or criminal justice. These fields, criminal justice and health care in particular, are growing rapidly and producing more and more jobs, Myer says.

"As the economy evolves or changes we're going from a manufacturing environment to a service environment," he says. "They may have been working at some plant making 10 or 15 dollars an hour, but their job was eliminated or sent overseas. As the need for jobs declines in one industry, typically it goes up in another industry, so an individual has to get more education."

Going back to school isn't as simple as sending in an application, though, especially when factoring in children and a full-time job, which many single parents must juggle on their own.

Obtaining a bachelor's degree and then a master's degree took several years for 50-year-old Russell Montgomery, a resident of Chicago's South Side. While raising a son and struggling to make sure he attended a private school, Montgomery took courses when he could, even commuting at one point from Chicago to Illinois State University in Normal. In 1999, with his son on the verge of becoming a college graduate himself, Montgomery finally had the time to focus on his own studies. He earned both of his degrees from National Lewis University and today works as the director of an adult program at the Chicago Christian Industrial League.

"It had its challenges," Montgomery says. "I wanted to make sure I did my absolute best. I've always thought that improving one's dimensions only improves everyone's situation. It certainly will improve mine."

Another increasingly popular source for more education and growth is law school. Mike Burns, assistant dean for admission at DePaul University College of Law, says applications to the school have increased by about 60 percent since 2000. In many cases, these applicants already had careers as teachers, doctors, nurses, police officers, accountants or other professionals.

"People see lawyers doing so many things," Burns says. "They want an education that will provide them with the opportunities, the flexibility and the freedom to pursue different career opportunities."

Burns changed his career course in the late 1980s after graduating from Northern Illinois University with a degree in public health. The turning point came one day in his 20s, when as a public health inspector for DuPage County, he was inspecting a fast food restaurant.

"It's kind of silly," Burns recalls. "The manager started asking me what I was going to do in life. He followed me around the kitchen and kept giving me grief about not wanting to do more. He said, 'Are you going to spend your entire life walking around kitchens following people like me around and writing us up for violations?"'

Not long after that moment of clarity from an unlikely source, Burns enrolled in law school.

As for Kirchoff, now a world history and social studies teacher at Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, taking a nearly $30,000 a year pay cut has never felt better. He tries to convey this philosophy to the students he teaches.

"I say to my kids, 'That's fine and dandy having the horns and whistles in life, but what really matters?'" he says. "You have to think about what's really important. At this stage in the game, it's not about money. Some days it's tough, but when I get to work I'm happy I'm there. I could never say that before." o

Published: August 01, 2005
Issue: Fall 2005