Economic challenges for college dropouts


As community college students prepare for graduation ceremonies today, we look at the economic challenges for students who didn't make it to graduation day. Tinamarie Turano of Westerly is one of those people. She dropped out of the Community College of Rhode Island some 20 years ago, and as RIPR's Elisabeth Harrison reports, she is now unemployed and hoping for a second chance at college.

Tinamarie Turano lives in a small yellow house on a quiet cul de sac near the banks of the Pawcatuck River. A line of white laundry flutters in the breeze in the backyard, and there's a for sale sign on the front lawn.

"It has to be sold," Turano says with a sigh. "It's been on the market since last June and we just keep going down on the price. It's just like they want to give it away."

The house has to be sold because Turano can't afford the mortgage. Over the last year, she got divorced and lost her job. Finding work has been tough.

"Has anybody looked in the paper lately? There's nothing," Turano says, explaining that most of the jobs in Westerly depend on the summer tourism industry. "In Westerly you'll get the seasonal jobs because we have the beach, but what do you do after that? They roll up the sidewalks and put them away."

Like nearly half of Rhode Island residents, Turano doesn't have a college degree. She says she thought about going to college after high school, but it wasn't something she thought she could afford. And college wasn't a big focus in the 1980's.

"Back then it was so different. You didn't have the push that the kids have now," She says. "If you were an A' student, you got more help, but if you were just a C' student, nobody really paid attention."

Turano is a slim 44-year-old with green eyes and a pixie haircut. She has a warm smile, and she says she liked working as a hostess at a local restaurant.

"Meet, greet, seat, pour water, that was me. You met a lot of people, and I enjoyed it. I always put 150 percent into a job," she remembers.

During her mid-20's, she enrolled full time at the Community College of Rhode Island, all the while continuing to work in the restaurant. She wanted to study English and criminal law, but her priorities shifted after she got married.

"I did about a year and then met someone and we were engaged to be married and when you get married things change," She explains. "We wanted a house and a family, and college just became too much money."

More than 2/3 of CCRI students don't graduate within three years, or transfer to another college. Ron Schertz, the Vice President of Student Affairs, calls the phenomenon "stopping out."

"We maintain contact with that person at least 3 semesters after they stop out," Schertz claims. "We'd continue to send information through the mail about registration dates, and then after that we assume that you've changed your plans and you've chosen another path."

For Turano, that path led to a family and a life she describes as relatively comfortable. For the last eight years, she had a good job as the beverage manager at a local golf club.

"The hours were good and I found my niche. I loved it," Turano says of that job. "My son could come down. My oldest helped me one season during busy events. It was like family."

But last year, just as her marriage was falling apart, that second family fell apart too. Turano's boss told her someone else would be taking her place as manager. He offered her a job as a housekeeper instead.

"It was devastating when I lost that job," Turano reflects, choking up a little at the still-fresh memory. "It was almost like a slap in the face. And he said I didn't know how to manage, which I was like, after eight years? It was devastating that they would do that to me."

Turano says she doesn't know if her lack of education played a role in losing her job, but she has struggled to find a new one. For help, she turned to the state's job counseling service, Network Rhode Island.

At Network Rhode Island's office in West Warwick, job-seekers update their resumes and search for openings on more than a dozen public computers. A few people practice interview techniques in a workshop.

Turano came to this office and met with job counselor Chris Tanguay. He says these days some kind of college degree is practically required to get a job.

"In the time when Tina went to college, it was a job seekers market, so she could really get a job quite easily without the degree," says Tanguay. Today, he explains, the situation is reversed. "It's an employers market. They can pick and choose, and for the same amount of money, they can get someone with a college degree. So now everybody does need to have some sort of education after high school."

A college degree also means the possibility of a better income. Median earnings for Rhode Islanders with no college education were just under $30,000 a year as of the latest census. With a bachelor's degree, the number rises above $50,000.

Turano says she's working toward a medical certificate, hoping that will lead to a job in the short term. Eventually, she plans to become a nurse.

"This is a first step and then maybe I can get into the nursing program at CCRI, with a little luck," she says, adding that her ultimate goal is a Bachelor's degree. "I might be 100 by the time I finish, but I'm going finish. I want to wear that little cap again, and have those special tassels hanging in my car. A better car, newer than 1986."

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