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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Understanding the Experience of Women Community College Transfer Students Over the Age of 25 at UCLA

  • Author(s): Adams, Heather
  • Advisor(s): Teranishi, Robert
  • et al.

The individual context and life course of women returning to higher education places them on a unique student development arc—one that does not necessarily align with the residential, youth-culture tradition of large public research universities. With this in mind, the aim of this study was to better understand the personal experiences and ecological dynamics of women transfer students over the age of 25 as they pursued a degree at UCLA. Currently, very little research literature focuses on age, gender, and the transfer student experience within the four-year university context, particularly within the R1 research university environment. This study helps fill this gap in the literature.

I conducted interviews with 30 women to understand the challenges they faced as they juggled multiple roles—including parent, partner, employee, and student—and navigated a university that was not necessarily designed to meet their needs or prepared to engage students who arrived with rich life experience and knowledge. Study participants described major challenges that arose from traversing multiple roles and responsibilities while they were students. They reported feeling isolated, describing obstacles to their sense of connection that included issues related to navigating an institution set up to serve residential and financially dependent students. Moreover, age and a related sense of disconnect with the majority of other (typically younger) students were significant factors in their college experience.

The women in the study desired to connect with others who shared their collective identity and to engage and develop in the campus environment. Although the women perceived a relative lack of institutional awareness regarding how their needs and experiences might differ from those of younger, residential students, the university did provide some key spaces. In doing so, the university demonstrated that these women and their peers were important and valued by the institution. When the women did have the opportunity to connect with others who shared their collective experience, they felt a strong sense of belonging and believed it enriched their academic experience as a whole. The people on campus who understood the transfer and non-traditional student context and the spaces and places that were designed to address the women’s specific needs helped to generate pride and institutional loyalty for the study participants.

The narratives and rich life experiences of the women interviewed for this study provide context and insight that can inform higher education policy and practice, particularly in relation to the post-traditional transfer student experience at the R1 university level. The dissertation includes recommendations for future research, policy, and practice to better serve this community of students. Recommendations for future research include continued investigation of the effect age and gender have on various aspects of the transfer student college experience at four-year universities. Particularly, how age may influence the socio-academic needs and integration of post-traditional students, as well as what impact students over the age of 25 have on the university community. Broad scale accountability and financial policies that effectively support post-traditional students such as outcomes-based funding, Pell Grant reform, and affordable child-care and housing options are discussed. Lastly, practice that deliberately fosters campus awareness regarding the post-traditional student experience and rallies ongoing university support for the community, such as inclusivity of women students over the age of 25 in the recruitment conversation and materials, staff and faculty professional development, unification of university messaging, and assessing and effectively meeting student need are suggested as immediate solutions to explicitly demonstrate that this community is recognized and valued by the university.

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