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Campus Women Lead

Winter 2012

Volume 40
Number 3

Access and Success for Nontraditional Students


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Susan Marine
Susan Marine

Bridges to a Brighter Future: Support Programs for Nontraditional Women in Postsecondary Education
By Susan Marine, assistant professor of higher education, Merrimack College

Even as women lag behind men in enjoying the benefits of the United States’ economic recovery (Savard 2012), some good news is emerging: programs for women who do not fit traditional (and outdated) conceptions of the “average college student” are flourishing. Many who were previously not well-served by higher education are thus re-engaging with the academy in adulthood. Loosely defined, these “nontraditional” college students are twenty-five years of age or older and have already entered the work force. Many women fitting this definition are parents, whether single or partnered. Comprising approximately 40 percent of the current enrolled US student population and 33 percent of undergraduates, “nontrads” (as they are sometimes called) are both a significant presence and a formidable market force in twenty-first-century higher education. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, their numbers are projected to increase even more in the next decade, and their rate of growth has already surpassed that of traditional-aged students (NCES 2011). While every nontrad student’s path is uniquely hewn, research indicates that women entering college in adulthood must often negotiate distinctly gendered factors—such as caretaker responsibilities and associated gender role expectations—that affect the likelihood of persistence to degree completion (Deutsch and Schmertz 2010).

Challenges for women entering higher education in adulthood abound—but so do opportunities. Like many of today’s students, nontrads may have rusty or inadequate math and writing skills and may lack confidence as a result. They may not have consistent support from their families or encouragement from their secondary-school teachers, solidifying their sense that college is an inappropriate goal for them. On the positive side, however, assumptions that nontrads are less academically engaged than their traditional-aged counterparts are unfounded: the 2006 National Survey of Student Engagement revealed nontrads to be more persistent in employing practices associated with academic success, particularly more frequent and higher quality faculty–student interactions. While less likely to be involved in student organizations or community service, adult learners come to class more prepared, are more active in classroom discussions, and more often integrate faculty feedback into completed assignments.

As described in the following examples, programs designed for nontraditional women aim to build on these students’ best attributes—maturity, goal orientation, and diverse life experiences—while ameliorating the effects of obstacles such as limited time and money and uncertain family and peer support.

Diverse Models of Nontraditional Engagement

Programs for nontrads that use an explicitly gendered focus are, unsurprisingly, frequently located in single-sex institutions. These programs are committed to both respecting and responding to nontrad women’s unique situations, and they enact this dual commitment by offering personalized academic advising, flexibility in course scheduling and degree completion, and academic support services to aid the transition back to formalized education. Accommodations reflective of students’ roles as caregivers, such as on-campus child care (often subsidized), on-campus housing, assistance with transportation, public school access convenient to the campus, and even health insurance for dependents are often part and parcel of these endeavors. The most well-known programs, such as those at Simmons, Smith, Mount Holyoke, and Wellesley Colleges in Massachusetts, have longstanding institutional support. Each program at these four schools operates under the name of a prominent social reformer or alumna (Dorothea Dix, Ada Comstock, Frances Perkins, and Elizabeth Kaiser Davis, respectively). Nontrads in these programs live, eat, work and study alongside traditional-aged undergraduates, serving as models of lifelong learning and offering unique perspectives by virtue of their expanded life experience. The continued success of these programs shows that when students are ready and colleges are intentional about their engagement, nontrads can not only thrive, but become part of the essential fabric of the institution.

Like its sister colleges to the east, Pennsylvania’s Wilson College has taken a focused approach to nontrad education, centered in this case on meeting the needs of single mothers. Providing dedicated on-campus housing suitable for families as well as subsidized day care, the Women with Children program at Wilson seeks to support nontraditional student learners in making education work while balancing the intense demands of single motherhood (Biemiller 2011). The program has added benefits for the community as well. At an institution with fewer than eight hundred students, the presence of so many women with children is a visible reminder that women’s college commitments extend beyond the “emerging adulthood” years, when students focus primarily on individuating from family as they search for an adult identity. A recent blog post by photographer Matt Roth evokes the delicate balance struck by Wilson’s nontrads with children: one shot depicts a mother’s brief moment of quiet study in the lounge of a residence hall as she awaits her child’s return from school; another shows children engaged in playful acrobatics on the same dorm couch after dinner.

Snapshot of Success: York University Bridging Program

For nontraditional women students, sometimes the greatest barrier is a sense that re-entry entails navigating a whole new world with foreign customs, norms, and rules for succeeding. The founders of the Bridging Program at York University, a large, coeducational public institution in Ontario, understood this reality, inviting nontrad women to enroll in a thirteen-week course at a cost of less than $200. The course, taught by faculty experienced in feminist pedagogy, exposes students to strategies for college success: note-taking, critical analysis, and study skills. Beyond the provision of camaraderie, the course concretely addresses “[the] multiple reasons why women lack the road map to actualize the possibilities of a postsecondary education” (O’Reilly 2009, 48). The course's varied locations—including a shopping mall, a YMCA, and a women’s shelter—promote ease of access, especially for low-income and immigrant women. Any woman who earns a B or better in the course may enroll in the faculty of arts program, and to date, the program has paved the way for more than three thousand women to pursue an undergraduate degree at York. The economics of the program are one factor in its success: for a relatively modest institutional cost of about $10,000 per course, twenty students enter into a new relationship with learning and with themselves, consequently advancing the lives of their children and their home communities. The three to four courses offered annually do not meet the needs of potential students, and the coordinators hope to expand the program to eight or more sections in the coming years, contingent on donor funding.

Recently reflecting on the Bridging Program’s thirty years of feminist education in practice, longtime faculty member and coordinator Andrea O’Reilly remarked that the program “makes huge changes in women's lives: women have left abusive relationships, gotten off welfare, and become happier mothers. Their children do better in school as the moms now model a commitment to education, and develop the confidence to do things (travel, fitness, education, jobs) that they never imagined possible before.” In a recent study, one participant described the contours of this transformation thus: “The Bridging program helped me find my feminist voice, and then my wings came shortly there after” (O’Reilly 2009, 46). The Bridging Program’s impact reverberates in the achievements of women like Martha Kumsa, who completed the program after fleeing political persecution in Ethiopia in the 1990s and settling in Ontario with her family. Kumsa went on to earn a doctorate and is now a professor of social work specializing in the study of conceptions of homeland and belonging among displaced immigrants.

In the Bridging Program, York responded to the realities of persistence and attrition for students who are far more likely than traditional undergraduates to stop out of college due to personal and family issues, financial pressures, and struggles with time management. Nontraditional undergraduates at places like York seek and expect greater coherence between academic work and life experience, flexible programs that accommodate idiosyncratic life goals, and appropriate and targeted support services to scaffold their endeavors. A recent study of the outcomes of nontraditional education in Ontario found that 80 percent of bridging program students eligible to enroll in further study did so, signaling these programs’ success in addressing many, if not all, of the challenges these students face (Kerr 2011).

“An Incredible Adventure”: Jacque’s story

After stepping off the path to college to raise children two decades earlier, Jacque Bradley wasn’t thinking seriously of pursuing a four-year degree until a classmate at the community college she attended urged her to apply to Smith College. To her surprise, several forces coalesced to take her across the country from Northern California to Western Massachusetts, where in 1995 she enrolled in Smith’s Ada Comstock Scholars program to study US history.

The program, whose students are affectionately called “Adas,” was founded in the mid-1970s and named for an alumna who went on to serve as president of Radcliffe College. Created at a time when such programs were proliferating, Smith’s program was among the first to integrate students fully—socially, academically, and residentially—into the life of the college. Under the leadership of then-president Jill Ker Conway, who “wanted to make schools and colleges treat older women with genuine respect for their intellect and curiosity,” the program further evolved in the 1980s by actively recruiting women on public assistance (Conway 2001, 22).
The rigors of education at Smith necessitate that “Adas” arrive academically prepared and ready for a demanding course of study. Accordant with other Adas’ experiences (Cohen 1998), Jacque felt some role confusion and self-deprecation early in her time at Smith: during her first semester, she “waited for the tap on the shoulder telling her they’d made a mistake.” Her response was to become highly focused on academic performance. Relaxing more as time went on, she took full advantage of her time at Smith—attending lectures by influential speakers like Elie Wiesel, accompanying a group to New Hampshire to volunteer on a presidential campaign, representing her residential house in the student government, and traveling extensively throughout New England.

As an Ada, Jacque lived in traditional student housing with eighty other women, most of whom were traditional-aged undergraduates. In addition to forming close relationships with younger women, Jacque described a strong sense of community and mutual support among Adas, especially those who lived on campus. Despite this warmth, Jacque resisted the notion that the Ada Comstock program was a utopia. Tensions between women of different life histories, identities, and political persuasions left her wondering, “If we couldn’t get along and accept each other there, what chance [would] we have in the real world?”

Jacque's experience mirrors the findings of Deutsch and Schmertz (2010) that feeling valued as learners in both their families and in their school communities matters greatly to nontrad women. While at Smith, Jacque found ample support among faculty, peers, and her family. Her mother, prohibited from attending high school by Jacque’s grandfather, proudly attended Jacque’s commencement along with the rest of the family. Jacque went on to pursue a master’s degree in history and currently serves as assistant dean for Financial Aid and Extended Opportunity Programs and Services (EOPS) at Mendocino College, where she helps many first-generation students, English language learners, foster youth, and other at-risk students achieve their educational goals. Having benefited from the Ada Comstock program, Jacque “carried it forward,” supporting a student in whom she saw the spark of an Ada. With Jacque’s help, this survivor of an abusive relationship applied to and graduated from Smith and is now teaching school in California. Jacque called her role in this student’s success her greatest achievement since leaving Smith, saying, “I don’t need to save the world, but to know I helped one woman, and now she can go out and save the world—that’s enough.”

A Look to the Future

When thoughtfully constructed, programs designed to support nontrads are invaluable avenues for increasing women’s persistence in college. Ultimately, such programs’ success depends on the institutions that house them. Whether a single-course model at a decentralized Canadian flagship like York or a more intensive and integrative program at a women’s college like Wilson or Smith, these programs require schools to invest not only funding but also serious commitment to inclusive pedagogy and relevant student services for low-income women, women with substantial caregiving roles, and women whose life circumstances might otherwise preclude a traditional college path.

While the examples noted in this article demonstrate that these programs can be operated cost-effectively, a two-decade-long shift away from government support of student financial aid has disproportionately affected nontrad women, intensifying the need to identify sustainable alternative funding for the programs that support them. To bolster the case for this support, better data is imperative. Many questions about the programs remain, particularly whether and how they affect women’s lifetime earning power and other life quality indices. Blended learning environments that couple in-person support with the best practices of online instruction may be one key to these programs’ continued growth. Further inquiry about whether such programs spur historically underserved women nontrads into social action, as some have suggested (Cohen 1998), could provide a compelling case for these programs’ niche in postsecondary education. In addition, reconstitution of reward structures to support faculty involvement would help build the necessary leadership base. Many programs currently depend on seasoned faculty, and the academy’s existing reward system (which rarely acknowledges such work) may suggest to junior or adjunct faculty that they can’t afford to participate.

Nevertheless, with time, resources, and creative institutional support, these programs demonstrate that nontrad women can surpass the challenges that may have kept them out of college—and thrive. In the words of one Simmons College Dix scholar, “I feel unstoppable . . . I just feel like I'm 10,000 percent better of a woman. There's not a challenge I can't face” (Lord 2005). Such endorsements speak to both a deep need and a potentially bright future for programs that bridge the gap from “life” to campus for nontraditional women students.


Biemiller, Lawrence. 2011. “Women’s Colleges Try New Strategies for Success.” Chronicle of Higher Education, September 11.

Cohen, Rosetta Marantz. 1998. “Class Consciousness and Its Consequences: The Impact of an Elite Education on Mature, Working Class Women.” American Educational Research Journal 35 (3): 353–75.

Conway, Jill Ker. 2001. A Woman’s Education. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Deutsch, Nancy L., and Barbara Schmertz. 2010. “‘Starting from Ground Zero’: Constraints and Experiences of Adult Women Returning to College.” Review of Higher Education 34 (3): 477–504.

Kerr, Angelika. 2011. Adult Learners in Ontario Postsecondary Institutions. Toronto: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.

Lord, Mary C. 2005. “Colleges Offer Extras to Lure Older Students.” The Boston Globe, July 24.

National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), US Department of Education. 2011. “Chapter 3: Postsecondary Education.” Digest of Education Statistics, 2010.

National Survey of Student Engagement. 2006. Annual Report 2006. Bloomington, Indiana: Center for Postsecondary Research, School of Education, Indiana University.

O’Reilly, Andrea. 2009. “‘I Discovered More than Book Knowledge’: York University’s Bridging Program for Women.” Atlantis: A Women’s Studies Journal 33 (2): 43-53.

Savard, Rita. 2012. “Data Show Men Outpacing Women in Job Market.” Lowell Sun, January 6.

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