Three Strategies to Better Serve Adult Women in Higher EducationMary Ann Holladay | Director, Utah Women and Education Initiative
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.
Author Perspective: Government
I firmly agree with Holladay’s point about ongoing feedback and assessment. It’s not simply a matter of going to the women students to have them identify problems and then having the institution develop the solution(s) independently. It makes sense to involve those who experience the barrier/issue to be involved in finding solutions as well.
I would be interested to read more about the “whole systems planning” approach Holladay briefly discusses. It seems it could be quite useful to have all the stakeholders around the table, involved in defining metrics and identifying priorities.
How did Utah Women and Education Initiative get stakeholders to buy into this? What is the reporting structure among the different parties involved? How are disagreements resolved?
I have an example I believe perfectly illustrates Holladay’s point. My (small, private) institution began offering some funding — sort of like a subsidy — for our adult students to access child care near campus. However, the uptake was very poor, even though almost all of the students had identified lack of child care as a potential barrier to education. We wondered why, and went back to the students. It turns out they found it inconvenient and difficult to access child care outside of campus. In addition, many providers didn’t accept children who only had to be dropped off once or twice a week (when the parent had night class). So, on the ground, our idea to offer some financial support to parents fell flat.
We tried a variety of solutions with mixed results, until we started a program last year with our ECE unit to have a sort of ‘drop-in’ center. Parent-students register their kids on the spot for the night(s) of their choosing at a nominal cost. Our ECE students, along with a few professional staff, run the center during evening hours (when the ECE students, who are full-timers, aren’t in class themselves). It’s currently just a pilot project, but we’re hearing some positive feedback. I realize this solution wouldn’t work for everyone — we are a small institution (1,500 at most) and had a lot of support from higher administration. But it shows that when everyone is on board to find a solution, it’s possible to maximize limited resources to achieve results.