For an educator, there’s nothing like feeling you’re onto something that could make the difference between success and failure for your students. Especially when those students are adult women, and especially at a time when women are still paid 78 cents for every dollar a man is paid, when nearly half of all mothers in the U.S. are the sole or primary source of income for their households, and when 53% of households living below the poverty level are headed by single women. A bachelor’s degree for an adult woman is the game changer that can end the cycle of poverty: she earns more, she invests in her family and her community, and her children are far likelier to go to college. She has better health outcomes, too.
The case was clear: we had to do something, something significant that could help these women change their lives. So, in 2013, we launched SOUL (Social Online Universal Learning), the award winning approach at the heart of The American Women’s College at Bay Path University, the only not-for-profit online program exclusively for women in the country. The model is revolutionizing online education.
In establishing The American Women’s College, we were simply trying to do what we have done at Bay Path since 1897: respond to the changing needs of our students. As the 21st century dawned, we were witnessing an increasing number of adult students with a new subset of needs: they were older than the typical 18-24 year old college student. They worked full time. They had young children. Many had elderly parents. Money was almost always tight. They were pulled in all directions and yet they were determined not to remain among the 76.8 million women in the U.S. without a bachelor’s degree. They wanted that degree once and for all to advance in their careers and to be a role model for their kids. To serve their needs, we developed a unique accelerated academic schedule to disrupt the traditional semester calendar. We called it the One-Day-A-Week Saturday program.
With this responsive mindset, we continued to take risks and pioneer new strategies. What we have learned, and is even more compelling today, is that these women struggle to fit in a traditional educational experience on a campus environment. It just isn’t practical. They may be up all night with babies, have kids to take to soccer practice, parents to take to doctor’s appointments, baths to give and dinner to make. And they have their job(s). These women need to be able to do course work, homework and interact with classmates and professors on their schedules, not ours. They also need a network of support: access to advisors to help guide them through a maze of possible courses and administrative hurdles, educational coaches to help manage their time, a community of peers to inspire and encourage them, and instructors that provide clear and prompt guidance and feedback.
In 2013 we responded with a fully online program that would enable these women to pursue their education in whatever free time they have in order to give them access to course materials (and tutors) 24 hours a day. Many have been out of school for years and have varying learning styles, so we included evidenced-based adaptive learning technology that actually learns what an individual student needs to succeed and, to mitigate achievement gaps, even sets proactive outreach in motion when it "senses" that a student is struggling. We also created virtual communities that engage and surround them with support from educator coaches, faculty and peers. SOUL is the paradigm shift needed to directly address barriers that impede adult leaner progress.
We are inspired by the students we serve and we are steadfastly committed to meeting their unique needs. Early indicators have strengthened our confidence in the promise of The American Women’s College. Six year graduation rates for our students are notably higher than comparable national averages for the cohort of adult women age 25 or older who attend private or public institutions of higher education.
But we are far from finished, especially for those whom an undergraduate education is the difference between thriving and falling further behind. So we will continue the revolution we started, and we will not let them down.