The pandemic cost her a job. It also gave her an degree.

To be fair, LaTrinidy Mike hated her career in banking.

The day she got laid off was a shockingly good one. More than a year later, Mike recognizes that it was pivotal: Losing the security of a job gave her the freedom to follow through on a longtime goal of completing her undergraduate degree.

“It was a sad situation. But the way that it happened for me, it was a lifesaver,” the 34-year-old said. “That was my way out.”

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Mike is one of many college students who started or returned to school when the pandemic pushed them out of jobs. Some of those students are already finishing their degrees: Mike is receiving her bachelor’s of business administration Saturday at Prairie View A&M University.

“This experience really showed me what God can do,” she said. “This is the happiest I’ve ever been in my life.”

While some people used the pandemic as an opportunity to return to school, lower countrywide enrollment figures in 2020 indicate it wasn’t a trend that occurred en masse, said Terry Hartle, senior vice president at the American Council on Education.

Historical patterns suggest that people seek higher education in greater numbers during economic downturns, but in the pandemic, people didn’t know what to expect as colleges and universities drastically changed their operations, he said.

“There weren’t very many signposts in how people would react,” Hartle said. “But without a doubt some people said, if I can’t work, if I can’t go out of the house, I might as well use my time to complete my degree.”

At Prairie View A&M, hundreds of people returned to classes in 2020 or 2021, after at least one year off, said Kimberly Sanders, assistant vice president of strategic enrollment initiatives. The number of such students increased slightly the past two fall semesters, from 234 to 281 students.

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board is providing funding to schools, including Prairie View, to encourage students to come back and complete their degrees, she said. The state hopes to increase the percentage of Texans ages 25-34 with a certificate or degree, from 38 percent in 2013 to at least 60 percent by 2030, Sanders said.

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“Institutions are moving to create a strategic focus, to put more attention on how we reconnect with our ‘re-admits,’” Sanders said. “I believe we’ve done a great job. We just need to continue on with that momentum.”

back to school again

Mike began her studies at Prairie View in 2006, but found she wasn’t ready for the rigors of college.

She fell into work instead, and while she returned to the university several times, she never finished. Classes were mostly in-person at the time, and that became hard to manage with a job and then a child.

Prairie View didn’t give up on Mike, however. The school repeatedly sent her emails encouraging her to return, with financial aid. Colleges know it’s easier for older students to enroll if they attended at some point in the past, as opposed to starting from scratch, Hartle said. And for many potential students, a loss of income during the pandemic meant access to more financial aid.

After she was laid off in December 2020, Mike spent time at home with her son. But the emails continued, and she took it to mean “now or never.”

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She began taking courses in summer 2021 and continued with full-time semesters in the fall and spring – taking about half of her courses online and half in-person.

Some students used the opportunity to start on entirely new degree paths. Priscilla Salisbury was in Seattle rehearsing for a touring opera, when COVID-19 shut down the United States. She moved back near her family de ella in Houston and reached out to the University of St. Thomas, hoping they could help her with a scholarship to pursue a Master of Sacred Music.

“I wanted to use quarantine to do something productive,” said Salisbury, 36. “I thought it would be a great opportunity to continue studying music.”

Salisbury, who is graduating Saturday, said she hopes to work with the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston to create a workshop improving the quality of music for Spanish choirs in area Catholic churches.

Mike plans to go back to school – again – and this time, she hopes to pursue a master’s degree in education. For now, however, she’s taking a break and enjoying life with her 4-year-old son.

“Sixteen years later, I’m finally finishing something,” she said. “And it feels good.”

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