As the recession took its toll on workers across New Hampshire, many decided to go back to school to weather the storm.
But the cost of college being higher than ever meant having to consider whether it was really worth the investment.
Amid a sea of job-seekers and potential employers, Angela Rodgers sits alone at a table at a job fair in Nashua.
She’s filling out another application.
Rodgers is a 35-year-old single mother and had been working in child care, but, like many, lost her job at the start of the recession.
“There was a huge decline in jobs in general, so all the parents were pulling their kids and there was no need for me anymore,” she said. “I’ve been looking for a job for a little while now. I just graduated with a bachelor’s degree, so I’m ready to get out there and find a real job.”
Instead of spending the last five years pounding the pavement and flooding a thin job market with hundreds of resumes, she says school seemed like the best option.
“So I was like this is my sign, I need to go back to school,” she said. “I just started with the idea that I was going to take a couple classes and see how it went and next thing I knew I was graduating. And I was like, ‘Oh my God, I have a bachelor’s degree, what am I going to do with it?’”
She got that degree in psychology from University of New Hampshire at Manchester, after spending her first two years at Nashua Community College.
She racked up about $40,000 in student loan debt in the process.
Dan Reagan, Associate Dean of Academic Affairs at UNH Manchester, says she was far from alone.
“They look to education as an economic ladder to a better opportunity and a chance to wait out the recession and so we do see a rise in enrollments during at least the first part of a recession.”
He goes through a spreadsheet of enrollment data, showing the school’s enrollment peaked in 2009 and 2010, around the same time the state’s unemployment rate was at its highest, hovering around 6.5 percent.
The school’s enrollment has since come back down to pre-recession numbers.
Reagan says programs like biological science and computer information burgeoned during those years.
“Students are responding to that; they’re recognizing that the jobs are in science and technology in New Hampshire and that’s where they’re aiming.”
He says going to back to school during the recession was certainly a wise investment for many students, but:
“Probably not the best idea to think I’ll go back to school and take some courses and wait for things to getter better. You want a better sense of why you’re taking the courses and what you’re pursuing.”
And that’s what many say was different about this recession.
While going back to school in hard times is nothing new, with the cost of higher education skyrocketing, there was a lot more to consider this time around.
“It’s a lot of time, it’s a lot of effort, it’s a lot of money. And it’s certainly not the guarantee it used to be,” says Bill Ryan, a career coach in Concord.
Given the prohibitive cost, he says he advised his clients – and still advises them – to think carefully about returning to school before taking on massive loans.
“Going back to school needs to be a means to an end. Now, I know that the end is ‘get a job,’ but I tend to take and push people a little farther than that into exactly how is this fitting into a career plan.”
Not all higher education institutions saw a spike during this time.
The main campus of UNH in Durham saw its enrollment stay roughly the same through the recession.
And the UNH School of Law, formerly the Franklin Pierce Law Center, has actually seen its enrollment decline over the past few years.
It could be the cost factor that explains why the real surge was in the state’s community college system.
Enrollment in New Hampshire’s community colleges jumped from roughly 23,500 students in 2007, to just more than 27,000 students in 2010.
Community colleges across the nation saw similar spikes.
At Lakes Region Community College in Laconia, enrollment jumped by 9 percent from 2009 to 2010.
And hands-on skill programs like electrical and automotive saw the most growth.
Vice President for Academic Affairs Tom Goulette says people affected by the recession were looking for programs that provided a tangible skillset they could offer to employers.
“Because people are keeping their cars longer now, there’s more of a demand for repair services. It really is one of those recession-proof careers.”
And then there were people like Nick Travalini.
He graduated from UNH in 2007 with a bachelor’s degree in communications.
“I got a job as manager of media relations for the Nashua Pride professional baseball team.”
A year later, he was out of work.
He tried working in retail – hated it – so he went back to school – again, studying information technology at the New Hampshire Technical Institute in Concord.
“The cost was very affordable. I could attend classes, go to work. And be able to afford both.”
He’s now working for a technology company in Bedford.
And as for Angela Rodgers, who was looking for a job in Nashua, there’s good news: A month later, she’s getting ready for her first day of work.
“It feels awesome. I’m excited to be out in the real world and be a big girl now. The job is an employment specialist working with homeless veterans through Harbor Homes.”
And she’s still thinking about her future.
She hopes one day to be a guidance counselor at an elementary school, but that would require a master’s degree.
So now Rodgers has to decide once again whether going back to school is truly a worthy investment.