Community colleges draw on a wide range of students to fill their classrooms: recent high school grads, adults with full-time jobs working toward a degree, professionals taking non-credit courses and retirees. But when it comes to rating the success of the various types of students enrolled at community colleges, one group always comes out on top -- adult women.
That's why Harford Community College instituted its "New Visions for Women" program, a series of seminars and workshops designed to ease the way for women returning to the classroom. Administrators at the public, two-year college outside Bel Air say the program is an unqualified success. The number of women applicants has nearly doubled since March, when the program began.
"Adult women make the best college students," said Dr. Richard J. Pappas, the college's president. "They are the most prominent student in higher education, by far. Sometimes, they have low self-esteem, but once they get here, they're great."
The idea for the New Visions program came after a recent decline in the enrollment of women. To find out why, Dr. Pappas appointed a task force to investigate the problems faced by women considering a college education. "We wanted to find out what the women's needs are, what their perceptions of education are, and what barriers we had unintentionally set up," he said.
The task force established an outreach team consisting of 14 college employees, ranging from secretaries to the president. "We took the message out," said Marlene Lieb, Harford Community College's director of admissions. "We went to exercise classes, aerobics classes, PTA meetings, women's clubs, homemakers associations and state job services offices."
Team members talked to potential students, bringing out their concerns, Ms. Lieb said. "We attacked any drawbacks the women may have -- for example, concerns over child care while mothers are attending classes and whether educators care if women come back to school. Also, many of the women said they were concerned about career possibilities."
Ms. Lieb said many of the perceptions the women had were amazing. "Many thought you can only come to school at 8:30 a.m. and leave at 3:30." In fact, most of the college's students attend evening and weekend classes.
Based on the task force's findings, Harford Community College is targeting married women between the ages of 25 and 45 who work part-time and have children. "The best candidates are still at home, working part-time in retail or in an office, and looking to move up," Ms. Lieb said.
Other colleges and universities are also recruiting women, Dr. Pappas pointed out. "We're not in a vacuum," he said. "We looked at other studies to see what kinds of frustrations women have, such as restraints on time, kids, and whether they want to go back to college. It's all part of our marketing plan."
Based on the information gathered by the task force, Harford Community College sponsored its first New Visions seminar in March. "More than 129 women attended," Ms. Lieb said. "The purpose of the conference was motivational. It was a very 'up' day. It was pouring down rain, but people stayed until the bitter end."
In addition, the college held workshops on choosing a career, financing a college education and alleviating anxiety. "There's a lot of anxiety among women about returning to college and sitting in a room filled with 18-year-olds," Ms. Lieb said. "But the image isn't true." She said many women don't realize the majority of students at the community college are adults, not kids fresh out of high school.
As a result of the New Visions conferences and workshops, Harford Community College has increased its women applicants 82 percent compared to last year, Ms. Lieb said.
The college's administrators point out that an increase in applicants doesn't necessarily mean an increase in enrollments. "Now we're calling every applicant, thanking them for applying and making sure they know what the next step is," Ms. Lieb said. "We have a New Visions hot line for any questions or concerns they have." The hot line is 836-4154.
More New Visions sessions are scheduled, Ms. Lieb said. "Our next workshop, in August, is a 'starter kit' for adult women students," she said. "It will address how to feed your kid when you have an evening class -- things like that."
Dr. Pappas said the success of the program is due to its targeting. "We're trying to be more specific -- not just targeting women, but a certain age group. And you have to understand students' needs better, then make a plan applicable to them."