AFSCME's Free College Benefit Can Change Lives

Annie Jakacki
Annie Jakacki

Annie Jakacki has years of experience, but she still found herself getting repeatedly passed over for promotions at work because she lacked one thing: a college degree.

Before she got the job she has now leading an MSOCS home, she figures she probably applied and interviewed for it at least 10 times at different sites.

“I had been working out-of-class in that position for a very long time. I had the experience. I was already doing the job,” Jakacki says. “I’d get bypassed for someone who’s never done that kind of work before because they had a degree, even if the degree wasn’t in the field. It was a big blow.”

Jakacki, who serves on Council 5’s Executive Board, started looking into going back to school. But the cost was a stumbling block.

“I’m willing to do the work and I can do the work,” she says. “But I can’t take $30,000 and drop that on school. I didn’t qualify for any financial aid or grants. Everything would have to be out of pocket. It wasn’t really an option.”

When Jakacki learned AFSCME was offering a free online associate degree in the arts, business management, criminal justice or early childhood education at Eastern Gateway Community College, she signed up immediately. She joins more than 2,000 people who already have enrolled, and more than 5,000 who have applied.

The free college benefit applies to AFSCME members, retirees and their families. Family is defined as children (or step-children and in-laws), grandchildren and step-grandchildren, spouses, domestic partners and financial dependents.

“For this big of an expense to be completely paid for was almost too good to be true,” Jakacki says. “Taking the money piece out was a huge relief and a big motivator. Now I can finally do it and I have no excuses not to do it.”

Jeremiah Kasten
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Local 3607’s Jeremiah Kasten signed up right away, too. The sergeant at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Faribault is working on his associate degree in criminal justice.

“Everybody talks about how you should go to college after high school. They make it a big priority,” he says. “But if you don’t know what you’re going for, it’s hard to put the money aside.”

Kasten had dreamed of going into the military, but a hole in his ear drum prevented him from enlisting. Instead, he went into the workforce right after high school, got married and had kids.

“For the time and debt I would incur, it didn’t make any sense to go to school,” he said. “The pay increase wouldn’t compensate for it. Now, with the free college benefit, it makes more sense. It’s one more achievement, one more high goal that I can say, ‘I did it.’”

In corrections, Kasten says, people can climb the ladder without a degree if they learn as much as they can about their facility, get involved and show they can do the job. Kasten likens it to a battlefield commission, where people who have the experience can be promoted on their merits.

But he says having a degree on top of that experience will provide him with more career options, opening doors to becoming a lieutenant or possibly going into case management.

He plans to stay in corrections, where he enjoys knowing he helps rehabilitate inmates.

“With corrections, to see all of a sudden a glistening of light in someone’s eyes, an awakening, it’s nice to see they’re really wanting to push forward. When they don’t come back, it’s really nice to see.”

Juggling going back to school with families and work isn’t easy. Add to that Kasten’s work starting a curling program for kids and Jakacki’s work as vice president and chief steward of AFSCME Local 607, and, and it can be downright challenging. But all of the classes are online, making schedules more flexible; coaching services are available to help students who are struggling.

Along with leading to more job opportunities, the program will enable Kasten and Jakacki to bring their new skills to their workplaces. Jakacki’s group home serves men coming out of the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter, many of whom struggle with mental illness and developmental disabilities. Jakacki says her psychology class was a good refresher, and she thinks leadership classes will help her ensure her group home runs efficiently.

“It could really help people build confidence, especially in our line of work,” Jakacki says. “A lot of our AFSCME members are direct-line care workers. It’s a good way for some people to have confidence they just aren’t an entry-level employee.”

For Jakacki, a degree will prove she has the knowledge to do the job.

“It will just be more of a security thing, knowing if I’m going for a promotion, I have the degree to back up my experience,” she says. “I’ve got a son, and it’s good to show him I’m a little older getting my degree, but I’m still getting it. I’m always working to better myself, and it’s good for him to see that as well.”

Learn more about the AFSCME Free College Benefit here.