Educational Experiences and Transitions of Reentry College Women: Special Considerations for African American Female Students

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Educational Experiences and Transitions of Reentry College Women: Special Considerations for African American Female Students*

This research examines motivators, obstacles, and support systems of reentry college women. Participants in Study 1 were 147 women, aged 25 and over, enrolled in undergraduate programs at a women's college. Study 2 was a qualitative investigation of the experiences of a sample of African American reentry women participants from Study 1. Results indicated that the women were excited about college reentry and motivated to return to school. They generally reported increased self-confidence since returning but identified role overload and role conflict as their major obstacles. Study 2 participants identified barriers particularly problematic for reentry African American women, including financial constraints, inadequate support systems, and institutionalized racism and sexism. Recommendations for enhancing reentry women's persistence and completion are offered.

Over the last three decades, with the increasing influx of older women returning to school, institutions of higher education have been challenged to reexamine their goals, philosophies, and programs. In 1997, approximately 6 million or 42% of college students were over 25 years old; 40% were part-time; and 56% were female (U.S. Department of Education, 2001). The faster rate of female college enrollment in comparison to the rate for men is due in large part to the growth in enrollment of older women. The terms "reentry" and "returning women," popularized in the 1970s, are used to describe the cohort of women who had not completed higher education at the traditional age but later returned to school while simultaneously maintaining other responsibilities such as full-- time employment, family commitments, and other obligations of adult life.

The blending of school and family is particularly challenging for reentry college women. Studies indicate that women consistently express conflict between school and family, while their male counterparts rarely mention family demands as a deterrent or concern (e.g., Gilbert, Manning, & Ponder, 1980; Ryder, Bowman, & Newman, 1994). In the late 1970s and 1980s, numerous reports were published on reentry college women in the United States (e.g., Astin, 1976; Ballmer & Cozby, 1981; DiNuzzo & Tolbert, 1981; Geisler & Thrush, 1975; Hersh, 1980). Since that time, however, massive changes have occurred in the social and political climate of this country. These changes have significantly influenced the personal, vocational, and educational aspirations of women. With these changes, more women over age 25 have sought to broaden their opportunities for professional and personal growth by returning to college either on a part-time or full-time basis. As older women become a more visible subgroup on college campuses, they will undoubtedly play a prominent role in how the "typical" undergraduate student is defined and how academic and support services are rendered to meet the needs of all kinds of students at various points in their lives.

THE CHANGING FACE OF REENTRY COLLEGE WOMEN

In 1965, the typical profile of the reentry woman was a White, middle-class housewife in her mid- to late 30's with some college-level education. The majority of these women sought degrees in traditionally female-dominated fields. Today, the reentry female population is much more racially diverse, particularly with growing numbers of African American women of varying socioeconomic status. Many of these women are also first-generation college students, which often brings additional challenges related to a departure from the pattern established by family and friends. Also, today's reentry college women select a variety of college majors in both traditional and nontraditional female-dominated disciplines. Given the social and economic situation of early- to late-midlife African American women (e. …