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Continuing Studies: Making the Most Out of AFSCME’s Free College Benefit

By Pete Levine ·
Tags: Benefits

For many people, going to college means achieving the American dream. However, far too often, college remains just that: a dream. Whether the price tag is too high or the obligations of work or family intervene, the pursuit of higher education is unattainable.

Through its Free College Benefit program, AFSCME has started to erase the lines that have kept so many from attending college. Since 2015, more than 4,400 members have taken advantage of the Free College Benefit, and what had once seemed impossible is now a reality.

The program allows AFSCME members and their families to take classes online through Eastern Gateway Community College in Ohio, earning credits toward a two-year associate degree. Areas of study include accounting, business management, early childhood education, criminal justice and others.

Not only is the program totally free, but it’s flexible. The online format means that students can work from wherever, and whenever, is most convenient for them. What’s more, earning an associate degree means you can bank those two years toward a bachelor’s degree at most four-year-institutions.

Ashley Buck (Photo by Emily Moe Photography)

Moving Up the Ladder

Ashley Buck, an administrative employee for Minnesota’s Enforcement Division of Construction Codes and Licensing, and a member of Local 2672 (Council 5), received an email advertising AFSCME’s Free College Benefit at just the right moment.

“Returning to school had been on my mind for a very long time. We were trying to decide what we could afford,” said Buck. That’s when the email appeared in her inbox. “It was a coincidence that came to fruition.”

For Buck, going back to school meant the possibility of moving up the ladder at work. There are two career paths at her current workplace: the administrative track and the investigative track. In order to become an investigator, however, some college experience is preferred—experience she’s now gaining.

Despite having two young kids at home, Buck says the coursework is laid out in a way that’s very straightforward.

“The nice thing about the program is the way it’s set up. The expectations are crystal clear,” she says.

After 13 years away from school, having a regimented schedule makes tackling her classes easier.

One of her favorite courses is Organizational Behavior, which she believes will help her down the road in a management role. But what she’s studying is paying dividends already.

“I’ve definitely been able to use things I’ve learned in class. I’m really involved in groups at work and studying group mentality is especially related to what I’m doing now.”

Michaela Spriggs

Setting an Example

Michaela Spriggs, a Licensing and Registration Technician Lead with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, and a member of Local 631 (Council 3), saw the Free College Benefit as an opportunity she couldn’t afford to pass up.

First was the price. Spriggs said that if the program wasn’t free, she would not have been able to attend college. Second was the flexibility.

“I’m able to take courses at my own pace. It helps me to schedule the school time around my family time,” says Spriggs.

Finally, like Ashley Buck, Spriggs has an eye on her future, and believes the coursework she’s completing now will prepare her for a role in management. But perhaps just as importantly, she’s setting an example for her children.

“They see the time and energy I spend on my classes, and enjoy doing homework with me. I feel like this helps them take schooling seriously,” Spriggs says. “My daughter tells me all the time how proud she is of me for going back to school.”

Wyatt Lee (Photo by Joseph Esser)

New Horizons

For Wyatt Lee, a corrections officer at the Halawa Correctional Facility in Oahu, the free college benefit was his first time back in school in almost 25 years. Lee, who is 47 and a member of UPW Local 646, found returning to school both challenging and profound.

In addition to a heavy workload at the prison, Lee had also recently gotten married and welcomed a new son – just as he began classes. He’d been encouraged to take advantage of the program by his shop steward, Shawn Colotario, and his wife, Andrea.

Early on, Lee struggled to keep up with his school work. He thought about quitting, but didn’t want to disappoint his wife or his AFSCME sisters or brothers.

“The union provided me with this opportunity to pursue higher education, and I didn’t want to let anyone down,” says Lee.

He kept going. It was an eye-opening experience. A class in criminal justice allowed Lee to gain a different perspective on a profession he knows so well.

“I know what it’s like to be on the front lines, but I wanted to see how others viewed what I do,” he says.

Lee gained valuable insight into the policy and administrative aspects of criminal justice. In researching solitary confinement, for example, Lee broadened some long-held views, earning an A on the paper.

Right now, like so many other college students, Lee is on summer break, enjoying his family as he gears up for the fall semester. In the meantime, he offers AFSCME a big “mahalo” – thank you – for a once-in-a-lifetime chance to go back to school.

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