James Simpson was just 12 credits away from completing his degree at Monroe Community College in 2008 when he stepped on something that left him was a serious foot infection.
"It got so bad that it led to kidney failure and I was on dialysis," Simpson says. He could hardly walk for nearly two years because he was in so much pain. In addition to his medical problems, he owed a little over $900 for the last semester he had attended MCC. But Simpson had no way of paying the bill and finishing his education.
"I tried everything possible, but I just couldn't do it," Simpson says. "I became mainly Mr. Mom, washing clothes and taking care of our kids. My wife had to pick up the costs for just about everything, and it was real tough on her."
But Simpson is now back at MCC, thanks to a program launched this fall that the college calls Return to Complete. It allows students to re-enroll and defer debt they owe to MCC. (The deferment doesn't apply to government or private student loans.) Once they complete their degree or certification program, students in the program can expand their career options and earning potential, college officials say.
"We do a lot of community outreach, and students would approach us and say they want to come back, but they owe us money," says Christine Casalinuovo-Adams, MCC's associate vice president for enrollment management. The average debt for those students is about $1,200, and it's for anything from tuition to books and other expenses.
"That's a huge, huge barrier for many of our students in this community, and if they left without completing a program they may not be employed and able to pay back the institution," she says.
Casalinuovo-Adams estimates that as many as 7,000 MCC students may be eligible for the program. Already, 115 have applied. Some left MCC as far back as 20 years ago, Casalinuovo-Adams says.
"It seems like every student has a different story, a different reason why they left," she says. "Life got in the way of them completing their education and pursuing the career they wanted. But that original dream of becoming a nurse or whatever it may have been is still alive. They really want to finish what they started."
Students do have to meet certain requirements, such as completing their degree or certificate program within four years and completing a financial literacy course. The most popular areas of study are nursing, radiology, medical office support, precision machinery, HVAC, and optics, areas where there is a demand for employees locally, says Casalinuovo-Adams.
Students can attend MCC's Brighton or downtown campus, and they can even take courses on-line from anywhere in the country. One of the first students to apply for the program lives in Anchorage, Alaska.
"For many of these students, this is a second chance they didn't think they'd get, and it can be life-changing for them," Casalinuovo-Adams says.
Simpson is the first person in his family of 11 siblings to go to college. He'll be attending MCC's downtown campus, which is not far from where he lives. He plans to finish his degree at MCC and then transfer to SUNY Brockport through the SUNY "2+2 Path." It's a lower-tuition route to a four-year degree. Simpson says he's always been interested in the criminal justice field, possibly becoming a parole officer.
"I am only four classes away from completing my degree at MCC, but I had my serious doubts about whether I would ever be able to do it," he says. "For someone like myself, you can't imagine what this means."
James Simpson is glad to be returning to MCC. PHOTO BY RENE HEINGERE