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Circuitous Routes: AAUW Study Examines Women's Paths to College


"If the 'track,' 'pipeline,' and corporate 'ladder' were the straight-line metaphors of work and education in the twentieth century, the metaphor of the next century may well be the 'spiral,'" explains American Association of University Women (AAUW) Educational Foundation President Maggie Ford. "The spiral captures the likelihood that women will move in and out of formal education throughout their lives, by choice or necessity, to fulfill a variety of economic and personal enrichment goals."

Men and women perceive the transition from high school to work or college differently. They also have differing agendas in pursuing higher education. Gaining a Foothold: Women's Transitions Through Work and College examines these and other differences in men's and women's transitions to college and work. Through quantitative and qualitative research, this study examines the educational decisions, goals, obstacles, and opportunities of three different groups of men and women: those moving from high school to work, from high school to college, and from work back to college. The study reveals that a variety of issues significantly influence women's transitions from school to work and college. These include age, children, lack of information, debt, and economic projections.

The study reveals that a variety of issues significantly influence women's transitions from school to work and college. These include age, children, lack of information, debt, and economic projections.

The Influence of Money and the Economy

Two-thirds of all U.S. students say they consider predictions about the economy and the future job market when deciding to go to college. This study reveals, however, that money issues affect men and women differently. More women than men cite credit card debt and lack of financial aid as obstacles to postsecondary education, and more women feel that better information about financial aid would have made them more likely to go to college (51% to 33%).

Reasons to Attend College, Reasons to Forego College

Women also seem to have a "dual agenda" for going to college. The study finds that whether going to college straight from high school or after working, women attend college for both economic gain and self-fulfillment goals. Yet women in all college-bound groups place more emphasis on self-fulfillment and personal enrichment than do men, (80% of women, as compared to 67% of men in the school-to-college group; and 85% of women, as compared to 78% of men who returned to college from full-time work cite personal enrichment as a very important motivator).

More women than men who moved from high school to work say they seriously considered attending college (82% of women, 70% of men), yet describe their decision not to go as one based on circumstances or "forces beyond their control" (26% of women, 15% of men). Women were also more likely to characterize their current work as "just a job" (67% of women, 49% of men), rather than a career.

Men, on the other hand, more frequently say that they decided to move from high school to full-time work because they were "never that interested" in college in the first place (26% of men, 15% of women). More men than women also believe that they can "get a decent job" without a college degree (24% of men, 14% of women) and more characterize their work as a "career" (51% of men, 26% of women).

The Role of Parenting

Eighty-two percent of school-to-work parents surveyed, the majority of whom are women, cite having to care for a child as the single most important reason for not seeking post-secondary education. Seventy-five percent of work-to-college women say "having to care for children" was a very important reason they did not go to college straight from high school.

Children, however, also provide a powerful incentive for women to seek post-secondary education. Many colleges and universities, however, pose serious logistical obstacles for caregivers hoping to fulfill this educational goal. Seventy-four percent of work-to-college parents name child care and flexible schedules to accommodate parenthood as factors that would encourage and ease their return to school.

Perceptions, Information, and Obstacles

Perceptions and information are critical in determining paths to college. Women are six times more likely than men to say that age posed a barrier to college, even though adult students now account for nearly half of college enrollments and most of these students are women. Nearly 40% of all respondents cite anxiety about academic requirements at college as an obstacle to college attendance. Significantly more young men than women cite fears of not gaining admission to college as an obstacle to applying to college. More young women than men say anxieties over SAT scores--as opposed to the actual results--hinder their going to college (34% of women, 22% of men).

The report also suggests, however, that "on the whole, women in all three transition groups perceive college as an inviting place. Few cite 'society's attitude toward women' or the 'treatment of women in higher education' as explicit obstacles. But college appears somewhat less inviting for people of color, one-third of whom feel that college is tougher for them than it is for white students." In addition, only about "one-fifth of women in the two college-bound groups agree that 'society's attitude toward women and education' or the 'treatment of women in the higher education system' were obstacles to continuing their education. In contrast, about "one-third of the people of color in the School to College and Work to College groups agree that the 'treatment of racial and ethnic minorities in the higher education system' was an obstacle to continuing their education."

One significant weakness of this report is that, while it provides a small amount of information on students of color as a group, it doesn't disaggregate by race the data on gender differences, making it impossible to see how women from different racial groups might experience these important transitions differently than do white women.

The study does reveal that a lack of information seems to be a critical problem for all groups. Both men and women feel that they would benefit from better or more information about college, the application and selection process, financial aid, and career choices. In addition, more user-friendly financial aid information was named by a majority of both men and women (80% of women and 66% of men) as a significant improvement that would make going to college easier.

This study confirms what others have revealed as well. The identity and needs of today's student populations are evolving. As AAUW Educational Foundation Director Karen Lebovich puts it, "Students are more heterogeneous now--in the obstacles they face, the educational goals they have, their ages, social background, economic status, and levels of preparedness--as this report illustrates."

Ultimately, this study includes many lessons about how colleges and universities need to change to serve a broader range of students effectively. These students and society as a whole are depending on higher education to make these necessary changes.

Gaining a Foothold: Women's Transitions Through Work and College is available on the World Wide Web at www.aauw.org/research/transitions.html


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"Students are more heterogeneous now--in the obstacles they face, the educational goals they have, their ages, social background, economic status, and levels of preparedness--as this report illustrates."



Communication tips

The media tends to be interested in trends, and in localizing stories that are national in scope. When a study like Gaining a Foothold is released, there is an opportunity to generate local news stories about the issues raised.

There may be a chance to generate feature or business news stories that review how local higher education institutions address the issues raised in the study. African American- or Hispanic-oriented media may be interested in talking to students of color about the obstacles they faced in continuing their education, and how their views compare to those expressed in the study. Women moving from high school directly to work and those going from work back to college can share with journalists the reasons they made their choices.