September 15, 2021

“AFSCME helped me get what I always wanted”

AFSCME Local 501 member Courtney Edwards has always wanted her college degree. A correctional sergeant at Lincoln Correctional Center, Edwards started working for the Department of Corrections in 2010. She wanted to go to college then but put it off when she had her son. Now a mother of two, she felt that going back to get her degree was financially impossible.

“I was looking for online degrees that I could complete at my own pace, and they ran from $10,000 to $15,000 a semester. I thought, how do I support my kids, pay for my house and day care, still work and go to school?”

Then Edwards heard about the AFSCME Free College program in which AFSCME members and their families can earn an associate’s degree from Eastern Gateway Community College and a bachelor’s degree from Central State University in Ohio. Both programs are completely free, online, and offer a wide array of focus areas including criminal justice, business administration, early childhood education, and more.

“I thought I might as well look into it. I set aside a day to go online and fill everything out, which was really easy. And a week later they called me to set up my classes. It was very convenient and simple,” she said.

“This benefit gave me the opportunity to not worry about finances for once in my life. You actually get to focus on the school. I have a 3.7 grade point average through my associates and that’s carrying on over to the new school with all my credits.”

Education that works

Edwards is finishing up her associate degree at Eastern Gateway Community College and she’s starting her bachelor’s program at CSU in August. She’s focusing on criminal justice.

After years of working on the front lines in corrections, she feels the classes are teaching her valuable lessons about big picture policy—especially as DOC is working toward transforming the state’s corrections system.

“Knowledge is power and now I understand so much more,” Edwards said.

Spreading the word

Edwards loves telling her fellow union members about this benefit. So far she’s encouraged many co-workers and five of them are already taking classes. Her local union offers help filling out the FAFSA and signing up for the program.

“Our union will provide a free education to you or your family members. That’s a huge benefit that many of us don’t realize we have,” Edwards said. “So many people are in debt for their degree and mine is all paid for. If I could do it, you can do it.”

More than 20,000 AFSCME members and their families have taken advantage of the free college benefit, which is open to union members, retirees and family members of union members, including children, spouses, siblings and others. Visit or call (888) 590-9009 for more information.

“AFSCME helped me get what I always wanted, and it’s changed my whole entire world,” Edwards said, and that’s why she’s helping others get their degrees. “You build so much confidence and you believe in yourself again. When I get a test back, a quiz back, see my grades—nobody did that but me.” 

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