Adult Women in Community Colleges. ERIC Digest.
by White, Janene
Female students have outnumbered male students in higher education for
nearly 30 years. In 1997, women comprised 55% of undergraduate students
and almost 58% of the students at community colleges (Phillippe, 2000).
About half of the female student population is adult women age 25 years
or older. Over 1.6 million adult women attend community colleges, about
25% of the total student body (Phillippe, 2000). This digest reviews some
of the recent literature about adult female students at community colleges.
Their motivations, unique needs, and barriers to entry are discussed, as
well as ways institutions can enhance the educational experience for adult
WHY DO ADULT WOMEN ENROLL IN COMMUNITY COLLEGES?
Adult students typically enter higher education for work-related goals
and family responsibilities. Johnson, Schwartz and Bower (2000) found that
adult women students are often motivated to return to school after the
"loss of a job, divorce, death of a spouse, and career limitations due
to lack of education" (p. 291). Oftentimes the impetus for adult women
to return to school is a personal, life-changing event. Changes such as
children leaving the home or divorce have been documented as influencing
adult women's desire to reenter higher education (Mohney and Anderson,
About three-fourths of adult women are enrolled on a part-time basis
(Phillippe, 2000). Women pursue their community college studies on a part-time
basis for a number of reasons, including family obligations, the need to
work for economic security, and child care concerns. Griffith and Connor
(1994) note that for community college students, "attendance behaviors...are
more dependent on their personal lives, their job lives, the outside world,
than on anything happening within the college" (p. 20). The increase in
divorce rates in recent years, as well as the high number of single-parent
households headed by women, has led many adult women to view the community
college as a good way to further their education and achieve greater economic
security and a better standard of living for themselves and their children
The desire to enter the work force or to improve current job situations
is an important factor in adult women's decision to return to school (Read,
Elliott, Escobar, & Slaney, 1988). This is especially important for
divorced women returning to higher education (MacKinnon-Slaney, Barber
& Slaney, 1988). The need to contribute to the family income or to
gain financial independence is another reason adult women return to higher
education (Holliday, 1985). In a literature review, Padula (1994) found
that in all studies, vocational factors were an important source of motivation
for adult women returning to higher education.
ROLE CONFLICT OF ADULT WOMEN STUDENTS
A primary challenge and source of stress for adult women students comes
from the multiple and sometimes conflicting roles they must play in their
daily lives. Mohney and Anderson (1988) found that role demands - family
responsibilities in addition to career or job demands, are a major obstacle
for returning women, and often impede their successful adaptation of the
additional role of student. Based on a survey of 119 reentry women 25 years
of age and older, Read et al. (1988) suggested that the multiple roles
of wife, mother, employee, may lead to discomfort or even feelings of guilt
about adopting the additional role of student.
In a survey of 350 adult female students, Johnson, Schwartz, and Bower
(2000) found that 84% of the women were responsible for children in the
home and suggested that "one of the most pressing concerns among students
who are parents is child care" (p. 292). Child care facilities on campus
offer a highly valuable resource for these students. Fadale and Winter
(1991) reported similar findings in their study of New York community colleges.
In their study, 500 student parents, 95% of whom were female, stated that
the campus child care facilities contributed not only to their academic
success, but also to their continued enrollment and persistence.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR COMMUNITY COLLEGE PRACTICE
The unique characteristics and experiences of this nontraditional female
population result in support and counseling needs that differ from those
of traditional age college students. Increased awareness of the stresses,
challenges, and additional responsibilities faced by adult re-entry women
can be helpful to administrators and student services personnel interested
in providing a supportive environment.
Campus-Based Support Network
Considering the circumstances surrounding the adult woman's decision
to return to school, providing a support network is another programmatic
effort that may ease the transition and encourage these women to continue
their studies. An orientation program for this population is one way to
introduce adult women to the campus and other similar students, as well
as publicize support services for this specific population (Johnson, Schwartz
& Bower, 2000) suggested. McClary (1990) suggested that instruction
in relaxation techniques and stress management can be helpful in easing
the transition to education. Because adult women typically return to the
community college during transitional or vulnerable stages in their lives,
and oftentimes must maintain additional responsibilities related to other
role demands, a support network is especially important.
Career development for reentry women students at the community college
is another area where programming efforts may be helpful, particularly
in light of the importance of vocational considerations in the adult woman's
decision to return to college. Healy and Reilly (1989) surveyed nearly
3000 students from 10 California community colleges in an analysis of the
career counseling needs of community college students. Results indicate
that although students of all ages need career exploration assistance,
the ways students go about investigating various opportunities may differ
for traditional age students versus adult students. Given the additional
role demands facing adult women, this is especially important and administrators
must closely examine the services to ensure the needs of this population
are not ignored.
Given the large number of women students who are responsible for children,
providing a safe place for children while the mother is on campus could
alleviate some of the stress of going to school. Research presented in
this paper illustrates the significance of child-care issues in the lives
of adult female students. Alleviating this as a concern could provide additional
encouragement for this population to persist in their academic pursuits.
Federal funds for campus child care centers are available through the Child
Care Access Means Parents in Schools program. Through this $25 million
program, colleges are eligible for grants of up to one percent of the Pell
Grant dollars awarded to their students (Yachnin, 2001).
The community college is the principal educational resource for adult
re-entry women, and this population makes up a large portion of the student
body at these institutions. As a result, community college leaders need
to be aware of the experiences and context in which reentry women are coming
to back to school, and provide support services and programs based on their
specific needs to encourage their persistence.
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the academic success of student-parents. Community College Journal of Research
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Griffith, M., & Connor, A. (1994). Democracy's open door: The community
college in America's future. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook Publishers, Inc.
(ED 368 433)
Healy, C. C., & Reilly, K. C. (1989). Career needs of community
college students: Implications for services and theory. Journal of College
Student Development, 30, 541-545. (EJ 406 593)
Herideen, P. E. (1998). Policy, pedagogy, and social inequality: Community
college student realities in post-industrial America. Westport: Bergin
Holliday, G. (1985). Addressing the concerns of returning women students.
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Johnson, L.G., Schwartz, R. A., & Bower, B. L. (2000). Managing
stress among adult women students in community colleges. Community College
Journal of Research and Practice, 24, 289-300.
Mohney, C., & Anderson, W. (1988). The effect of life events and
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MacKinnon-Slaney, F., Barber, S. L., and Slaney, R. B. (1988). Marital
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students. Journal of College Student Development, 29, 327-334. (EJ 383
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Padula, M. A. (1994). Reentry women: A literature review with recommendations
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Read, N. O., Elliott, M. R., Escobar, M. D., & Slaney, R. B. (1988).
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Yachnin, J. (2001, February 2). Congress puts more money into aid for
child-care centers on campus. The Chronicle of Higher Education, p. A22.