Adult Women Returning to Education: Care of the Self?

In the late 1960s, there was a major shift and unexpected occurrence in society, adult women were increasing their presence in colleges (Jones, 2009). The doors of academia that once were closed to women were opened and the admission policies that separated the genders had ended. Women began to expand into career fields outside of traditional female fields of study and (Jones, 2009) by 1980s women were earning the most undergraduate and graduate degrees.



Why are they going back?
Economics: Once child rearing becomes less of a focus, women find themselves at the crossroads in their lives, desiring to pursue occupational goals previously placed on hold for the benefit of their families (Hardin, 2008; Sweet & Moen, 2007). The intention behind pursuing a college degree for some women is the goal of attaining a higher position in the workforce that will (hopefully) lead to financial stability.
Life-Transitions: Major life events such as divorce, death of a spouse/family member, loss of employment etc. can trigger the motivation to return to education with the hope that they can re-create an identity or return to a past identity.
Self-Investment: The possible selves framework examines the self-concept as it refers to the future where the self evolves over time based on ones’ life experiences, psychosocial context, economic and current situation (Markus & Nurius, 1986). Rossiter (2009) believed the possible selves framework could provide insight into “understanding the adult learner” in transitions from one career to another and identity transition (p12). Frazier and Hooker (2006, as cited in Rossiter, 2009) outlined four theoretic anchors that when combined with adult development provides an overview of how possible selves can be used with nontraditional students. The first is that possible selves “demonstrates the self-directed nature of development” (p. 62) that individuals chart their own course. Second, possible selves are contextual, that this self is defined and shaped by their interaction with their environment. It is also a source of motivation for the things that they do or do not do. Third, in the developmental process possible selves is a power motivation toward shaping a person’s’ course. Fourth, the personality is a personal action construct that affects self-regulation.
Questions and quote to consider
Are adult women returning back to education because of who they think they should be? And, are they creating (or re-creating) an identity based on who they want to be or who higher education thinks they should be?

“The self-directed, self-managed individual is encouraged to identify with the university and the goals of higher education policy: challenging the terms of reference is not an option.”

Does this provide them with more control over their lives?

The Nature of Relationships
Relationships for a majority of women, and most adults, returning to college play an integral role in the success of not only returning but attaining the degree. Shore and Wright (2000) mention that “to be effective, audit technologies must somehow re-fashion the way people perceive themselves in relation to their work, to one another, and to themselves. In short, they are used to transform professional, collegial, and personal identities” (pg. 62).

Family and Culture:

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Two different women pursuing similar degrees can have different relationships with their peers particularly when there is a vast difference in age.


1st woman: Woman is in a classroom with students who are in their mid-late 20s. The younger students in the course have oriented the woman into the role of the mother–a role which she has already undertaken with her own child.

2nd woman: Woman is in a cohort with student who are in the mid-late 20s and early 30s. The woman has oriented herself into the role of the mother and the students as her daughters.

This raises the question: how do women self-fashion themselves in a classroom?
Hardin, C. J. (2008). Adult student in higher education. New Directions for Higher Education,
144(49-57). doi: 10/1002/he.325
Jones, S. (2009). Dynamic Social Norms and the Unexpected Transformation of Women’s
Higher Education, 1965-1975. Social Science History, 33(3), 247-291.
Markus, H., & Nurius, P. (1986). Possible selves. American Psychologist, 41(9), 954-969.
Rossiter, M. (2009). Possible Selves and career transition: Implications for serving nontraditional
students. Journal of Continuing Higher Education, 57(2), 61-71.
Sweet, S., & Moen, P. (2007). Integrating educational careers in work and family: Women’s
return to school and family life quality. Community, Work and Family, 10(2). 231-250.
doi: 10.1080/13668800701270166

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