Monday, May 12, 2014

Women are a Force to be Dealt with in the Nontraditional Academic Arena

Flexibility within the post-secondary education landscape is evolving fast. More students than ever are going back to school seeking a career change or a leg up in their current positions, more often than not those students tend to be women.

Interestingly, the trend in degree choice for women seems to be in business management. Female employees who study make up 28 percent, while males make up only 24 percent (NECS).

I spoke to Dawn McClintock (who is also getting her bachelors in business management) about her hypothesis as to why women’s enrollment has exceeded their male counterpart. “We have always wanted the education, but it was less feasible before.  Universities are starting to get it now, women have a lot on their plates—especially working mothers. I don’t think that I would have been able to do this even 10 years ago, but now colleges are structuring programs that fit into our packed schedules.”
Many colleges are catering to not only the nontraditional student, but specifically to women.  Some of the programs include: Mt Holyoke’s Francis Perkins Program (specifically targeting older students), Smith College’s Ada Comstock Scholars Program, and Yale University’s—highly competitive Eli Whitney Program.
The American Association of University Women claim that nearly 60 percent of online students are women, and the majority over the age of 25.
"I take as many classes online as possible," says Brooke Hackett, mother, and full time worker. "Its the most convenient and practical way to integrate school into my life, otherwise I think I would be missing out on some of the best years with my kids."
According to the US Census Bureau since the 1980's the rate of women's enrollment in higher learning facilities has doubled to almost 12 million.
"I would be shocked if there wasn't a direct correlation between more online courses being offered and the rise in women attending college," says Hackett. "We can have our cake and eat it too."

Insecurity in a World of "What If's?"

Choosing the right school for you is only half the battle.  What happens after, how does a nontraditional student find their footing in an unfamiliar environment?

There have been many theoretical approaches which have surfaced about adult learners over the years.  One of the best received comes from Malcom Knowles, called Andragogy. This theory suggests that adult learners are more likely to prefer self-direction, show a readiness to learn that is based on a need to know or do something, they are problem centered rather than subject centered, and have a high degree of internal motivation (AACU- Association of American Colleges and Universities).

“I can only speak to my experience, but I can tell you that had I gone to school earlier I don’t think I would have been nearly as productive,” says McClintock. “I’m going with a specific purpose in mind, to further my career and help establish my family financially.”

With such amazing attributes that seem to evolve with adult education, why isn’t everyone waiting? Well, In contrast to these studies, findings by Jovita M Ross-Gordon, a professor at Texas State University, found that in addition adult learners may have a lack of self-confidence upon readmission.  Her research also suggests that adult learner’s desire structured learning so to have a clear idea of the teacher’s expectations, and while they wish for flexibility they also desire structure (AACU).

Sirrina Simard, 26 of Merrimack NH, spoke about the trepidation's she had when re entering the education system as a non traditional student. "I definitely had some nervous energy going back.  You question if this is the right decision, will I be able to keep up with all my responsibilities, is this going to to benefit me the way I'm hoping? It's a lot of time and money, I think most students have the same hesitations, regardless if they are traditional or non traditional."

The infrastructure of education is changing rapidly.  Now more than ever, academic opportunities for the individual are broadening, taking shape as a fluid more free form entity than ever before. Women, ethnic and racial minorities, as well as the lower middle class, are making up the majority of nontraditional students. Historically these groups have been the ones overlooked, and under served in the academic arena.  Will this landscape of flexible alternatives be the answer that our country has been searching for?

"Despite having an understanding of the values of adult learners, the Commission for a Nation of Lifelong Learners concluded ill-adapted higher education practices pose barriers to participation, including a lack of flexibil- ity in calendars and scheduling, academic content, modes of instruction, and availability of learning services (NCHEMS, 2007). This disconnect resonates as adult learners or nontraditional students drop out of college at a much higher rate, 38.9%, than traditional full-time students (18.2%). The retention rate for nontraditional students age 30 or older is 65.4%, and the 6-year graduation rate is an abysmal 10.8% (Pusser et al., 2007)"(Cooper).

Academic Options

To meet the growing demands of a ever changing student demographic, institutions have begun to start thinking digital.  Classes online are only growing in popularity due to their flexibility and more affordable prices. Without the physical aspects of brick and mortar universities, often times online universities can be substantially less expensive than their material campus counterparts.  
After finding the traditional community college to be less than adequate, McClintock found herself at Western Governor’s University, an online college that offered a more free form schedule. “My learning assessment is competency based, as opposed to credit hours which means that I have the power to go as fast or as slow through the course as I want.”
McClintock's flexible school schedule makes it possible for her to earn her degree, continue to work and still have time with her family. In addition to her love of the flexibility within the class structure, she is also very happy with her cost of attendance. As seen by the Western Governors University website (, cost of attendance for a six month program is about $2,890. Compare that number with those of a traditional University, such as Plymouth State University, with the cost of attendance per semester rounding out to about $18,000 for a non resident, and 11,000 for a resident (
Much like McClintock, Sirrina Simard, 26 of Merrimack NH, finds herself in a situation not so unique to the non traditional student. She works a 40 hr a week job at Dartmouth Hitchcock as an administrative assistant in the rheumatology department, as well as being a part time student, and working one night a week as a server at Hooked in Manchester.
Simard began attending Mt. Washington College (formally Hesser College) two years ago and is going for a bachelors degree in Psychology. "I found that Mt. Washington works for me because its the best of both worlds. I'm able to go for the online courses that I feel comfortable with taking digitally, and then for the classes that I think attending to on campus is a better fit I take there," says Simard.

Who is the Nontraditional Student?

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) estimates that 38 percent of students are identifying as nontraditional, and that number estimated to increase more than 20 percent by 2019.

Embarking on the road to academia can prove stressful for any individual.  There is the issue of finances, housing, time management, and of course integrating one’s self socially.  Going through this exciting, and at times uncomfortable experience has been a rite of passage of America’s youth for as long as can be remembered. However, times they are a changing, and gone are the days of exclusively youth driven enrollment (under 24 years of age).
So what constitutes a student as nontraditional?  According to the NCES, for a student to be considered nontraditional they must embody at least 1 or more of the 7 factors:

·         Has financial independence

·         Does not enter post-secondary education within the same year that they finished high school

·         No high school diploma

·         Single parent

·         Works 35 hours or more

·         Attends part time

·         Has a dependent other than spouse

Dawn McClintock of Concord New Hampshire, is among one of hundreds of thousands of nontraditional students continuing her education this year.  According to the NCES (National Center for Education Statistics), McClintock would be considered a high level nontraditional student, based on the fact that she checks out with 5 of the seven factors.

McClintock is a mother, part time student, married, financially independent, and works a 40 hour a week job.  So with all these balls in the air how is it that she finds time in her busy schedule for school?
 “I tried the traditional class scenario,” says McClintock, “I could see right off the bat that it just couldn't work. Between the commute and incredibly structured deadlines, I knew I needed something different."
So many non traditional students are mothers, fathers and/or full time employees struggling to make it all work within the confines of a stringent schedule.
Brooke Hackett, 36, mother of two year old twin boys, and full time radiologist at St. Joesph's Hospital in Nashua, is about to go back for her second round as a non traditional student at PSU.
"I think anyone can make it work these days if they are motivated enough," says Hackett. "Its no longer the institution that it used to be, finding schools that can fit into strict schedules and budgets are cropping up all over the place."
Hackett went back to school for the first time when she was 27, "I saw that I needed to move forward, and the radiology program at NHTI ended up being the perfect fit for me. It fit my budget and although it was intense, the class structure seemed to be geared toward non traditional students.  I was able to work and finish with my degree in hand."