Colleges Urged To Meet Women's Changing Needs

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Colleges and universities will have to change the way they do business if they want to accommodate the increasingly heterogeneous population of women yearning to earn a degree, a report released last week concludes.

More and more women are opting to spend time in the workforce before they enter college or are returning to school later in life, according to the report, "Gaining a Foothold: Women's Transitions Through Work and College," by the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation in Washington.

For colleges, that means making education both more accessible and flexible than ever before, Karen S. Lebovitch, the director of the foundation, said in an interview.

For More Information

Copies of "Gaining a Foothold: Women's Transitions Through Work and College" are available for $12.95 each from the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation by calling (202) 728-7602.

"We are redefining the definition of a student," she said. "The [college] population is much more heterogeneous than ever before in terms of their educational goals, backgrounds, preparedness, and obstacles they face."

In conducting the study, which was designed to identify the factors influencing women's decisions about education and work, the AAUW foundation surveyed by telephone more than 1,000 women and men ages 18 to 40 who were going to college either directly after high school or after spending time in jobs, or had graduated from high school and immediately entered the workplace. The foundation also held 10 focus groups around the nation with a total of 80 women and men ages 16 to 30 who had similar experiences.

Financial Concerns

Karen S. Lebovitch

For both women and men at nearly all stages of life, a lack of money remains the biggest barrier to pursuing higher education, the aauw report says.

Women, however, are more likely than men to feel the burden of debt, according to the report. Women who are making the transition from either high school to college or from the workplace to college are also more likely than men to be influenced by that anxiety in deciding whether to enroll. Many participants also cited credit card debt as a barrier to higher education.

Finding information about the college-admissions process is also a concern, especially for potential students whose families earn less than $50,000 annually or whose parents did not attend college, the report says. Significantly more women than men reported finding that to be a problem.

"We're in the midst of an information economy, but students still feel lost and bewildered," Pamela Haag, the senior research associate at the AAUW foundation, said.

Moreover, some 18 percent of women making the transition from work to college said their age initially discouraged them from pursuing higher education. Only 3 percent of men said age affected their decisions.

Fewer Barriers

While these factors continue to pose problems for women, many of the barriers they once faced in pursuing higher education have long been eradicated, Bernice R. Sandler, a scholar in residence at the Washington-based Association for Women in Education, said in an interview.

Indeed, the number of women enrolled in college increased from 5.2 million in 1976-77 to 8 million during 1996-97, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Women in college began outnumbering their male peers in the 1981-82 academic year.

Women have also made significant strides in earning advanced degrees. Between 1977 and 1996, the number of women who earned a master's degree rose 52 percent, while the number who earned a doctorate increased 120 percent, according to Department of Education figures.

The AAUW report shows, however, that "we still have a lot of barriers, both structurally and individually," to conquer, Ms. Sandler said.

Access to college would be easier for women if they had increased financial aid and tax credits and better sources of information to learn about higher education, the study participants told the AAUW researchers. They also expressed a desire for financial incentives and words of encouragement from employers, as well as affordable child care provided by colleges.

Vol. 18, Issue 40, Page 7

Published in Print: June 16, 1999, as Colleges Urged To Meet Women's Changing Needs
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