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Three Strategies to Better Serve Adult Women in Higher Education

Three Strategies to Better Serve Adult Women in Higher Education
Involving the entire learning community and ensuring women’s needs are thoroughly understood and are being met are critical elements to supporting the postsecondary success of this student group.

I have been thinking about what kinds of support mechanisms every institution should put into place to encourage more adult women to complete college, and I came to identify three particular approaches that would greatly improve the system.

I recognize our higher education institutions are as diverse as the populations they serve, and to prescribe a one-size-fits-all approach to a complex and multi-faceted issue is foolish, at best. However, as I look to the coming fiscal year, I am faced with the same financial challenges as many higher education institutions, large and small. No one has the luxury of simply adding programs here and there and hoping they will make a difference.

With that in mind, I would like to share my thinking around how we at the Utah Women and Education Initiative are approaching this challenge in the next fiscal year. I will focus on three strategies that should form the basis of an institution’s retention-based activities in the coming year: whole systems planning, ongoing feedback and assessment and the balance between high-tech and high-touch approaches.

1. Whole Systems Planning

We see ourselves as part of a comprehensive living system that impacts an individual’s ability to succeed in the postsecondary education process. Therefore, to effectively plan to make a difference in success rates for adult women, the entire learning community must be involved in planning processes.

At the Utah Women and Education Initiative, we do this by including leaders, learners and community representatives from businesses, schools and non-profit and religious organizations in helping us to first understand the issues preventing completion, then effectively identify and implement strategies that will make a difference. We use a disciplined approach in identifying priorities, recognizing we cannot be all things to all learners. We know we will have to adjust our plans along the way and we agree on metrics by which we will be accountable to our stakeholders, now and in the future.

2. Ongoing Feedback and Assessment

Whenever I ask a group what can be done to influence completion rates among adult women, child care is the first answer that comes up. However, merely providing options or funding mechanisms is an incomplete solution to a complex issue. Until we are able to gather ongoing data around the reasons women are leaving school and not returning, we will merely be taking a stab in the dark. To this end, we advocate a change in mental models to one of customer service for the adult women we serve. We must continually ask ourselves challenging questions around product, quality and perception. For example, we have viewed our website as a powerful tool to be used by influencers in the lives of women. However, when we study the analytics we find many of the resources we have worked to provide are not being utilized to their fullest extent. We must understand why this is the case and make the necessary adjustments to our products and services to ensure we are exceeding the expectations of our customers.

3. Balancing High-Tech and High-Touch Approaches

I recently met with a group of young women who provided feedback that they are tired of hearing, “Just go online” to get necessary information. As an older person, I have assumed this is the preferred method of communication, but I have been surprised at the need for high-touch approaches and the difference they can make in helping students overcome the emotional barriers to moving forward. This is why one-on-one mentoring continues to have a huge impact on an individual’s ability to succeed in a system that can often be perceived as unfriendly, inhuman and inflexible. The challenge here is to avoid reinventing the wheel by simply adding people (if that is even possible with limited resources) and instead continually forming and improving partnerships with educational and community resources that can reinforce, support and mentor the adult population we serve.

In conclusion, educational institutions have made progress in serving the needs of an increasingly diverse population, including adult women who are re-entering the education system. The key to continuing this progress is to continually challenge our thinking while maintaining disciplined approaches to planning, assessment and customer service through the eyes of the people we serve.

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