In my last post, I cited extensive research that looked at today’s women’s college students and found they’re older, more diverse and less economically advantaged than all other college students, and yet, they graduate at similar rates to students at private liberal arts schools, a population that tends to be the most privileged. The big take-away is one that those of us at women’s colleges are well aware of: an education specifically designed for women is powerful.
How do we build upon and extend the women’s college experience—and success—to students who will never be on our actual campus, who may be learning across time zones, who might be studying on their commute rather than in a nook at the library? The average age of students enrolled in exclusively online bachelor's programs is 32, 84% percent of them are employed, and 65% are women. They need flexibility, but we also know they need more than that, because we have the data to inform and guide us.
When The American Women’s College (TAWC), Bay Path’s online undergraduate program was created nearly a decade ago, it offered adult students that critical flexibility, while providing them with high-caliber academic opportunities and increased access to college, but that wasn’t exactly a unique concept, as many online learning programs flourished at that time.
What is distinct is that we prioritized embedding the community, support and unique learning environment that defines the women’s college experience into our TAWC program. We believe our online students are entitled to a valuable, empowering college experience that goes beyond fulfilling credit requirements. But what does this look like in a virtual space?
It’s a peer mentor program that matches every single student with another student, from orientation through graduation. It’s virtual learning communities, which bring students, faculty and program directors from each major to a dedicated forum for networking, information sharing, job postings and hot topic discussions. It’s using the vast platforms available for conversation and connection to build social communities. (It’s worth mentioning that our TAWC Facebook group, which we created years ago as a means for student advising, is now actually run by our students, who use it not only as a place to discuss coursework and school issues, but also to share personal perspectives and lend support to each other.)
And, students must complete the Women as Empowered Learners and Leaders (WELL) program, a three-course curriculum based on cultivating leadership, self-advocacy, career strategies and social awareness, culminating in a community service project, because this helps build the confidence that every student needs.
This comprehensive, student-centered experience, which we call SOUL (Social Online Universal Learning) is intentionally grounded in the traditions of women’s education, stresses both the academic and social aspects of the college experience.
Armed with the tools and practices that are foundational to our online program, we created a new college experience for our on-campus students, while preserving the connection, community and support that defines women’s colleges. In fact, this incredible collaboration between our traditional and adult student deans was recognized by NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, and we are one of only ten higher education institutions to receive a Virtual Innovation Award for Excellence in Delivering Virtual Student Services.
I am convinced that this cross-pollination of ideas and experiences, new technologies and longtime traditions, grounded in the women’s college experience makes all the difference for today’s learners, whether they’re studying online or in their dorm rooms. As students face mounting obstacles to their degrees and increasing concerns about their futures without them, we need to herald this unique approach, carry it off our campuses and bring it into more women’s lives.