Dear Joyce: I was shocked to be told on a Thursday that Friday would be the last day for me and everyone else in my 10-person department. I hope to use the time off to go back and finish my college degree. But being laid off and retrained as an adult is one of those situations where you can never save enough to see you through to a new start. Help? -- V.G.
Debt is better than unemployment. But not by much. You're looking at borrowing and your task is to determine the least painful pay-back.
It is intolerable that this nation has no adequate retraining policy for middle-income displaced workers. New jobs demand a better-educated work force and middle-income Americans are being priced out of higher education. Or they can borrow and sag under difficult loan repayments.
Low-income adults can qualify for grants that do not have to be paid back. Kay Dennis, 41, of Ava, Mo., was a single mother of two in 1986, earning minimum wage and receiving food stamps. Drury College opened an extension of its evening school in Ms. Dennis' hometown and a friend suggested that she go back to school.
Ms. Dennis' annual income, about $5,400, made her eligible to receive grants and loans covering the entire cost of her education. Her success climb has led her to a teacher's job in Ava's middle school that pays $18,000.
A new loan approach to aid middle-income students is being kicked around in the Congress this election year. As originally proposed, it was to be available to any student but critics have managed to strip it to a pilot program for 300 colleges and universities.
The idea is simple: Colleges and universities would act as lenders, by-passing banks and other financial institutions -- a $4.8 billion student-loan market. The banks are fighting the idea because they would lose fees.
The student's pay-back schedule would be based on income, with the Internal Revenue Service collecting the payments. Any students attending the selected 300 schools could borrow up to $5,000 a year, with a total limit of $30,000. The interest rate would equal the 52-week rate on Treasury bills plus 2 percentage points. The IRS withholding is a device to correct the high student loan defaults, which have cost taxpayers $11.5 billion since 1987.
As for the mechanics of student financial aid, they're the same for adults 25 years or older -- who now make up nearly half of all college students -- as for younger adults.
My booklet, "The College Financial Aid Emergency Kit," is available for $4.25 plus a long, 52-cents stamped, self-addressed envelope, from Sun Features, Box 368C, Cardiff, Calif. 92007. It helps you understand the student aid maze and suggests other resources.
If you're going to school locally, the college's student aid office may have a computerized data base you can use free to hunt for funds, or big thick books such as "Gale Research's Scholarships, Fellowships and Loans 1992-93."
Still employed but nervous? Don't overlook distance-learning alternatives, from home study programs to college by electronics. Avoid schools lacking regional or appropriate program accreditation.
An example of electronic study is George Washington University's new master of arts degree in educational technology leadership. The program includes interactive communications over toll-free telephone lines, computer bulletin boards, fax or mail. For details, contact the program's distributor, Mind Extension University, at (800) 777-6463.
You still can be jobless even after improving your qualifications. For those forced to start anew, keep in mind that education is not Aladdin's lamp but the alternative may be career brown-out.