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Community Colleges Help Women Start Over

Thursday, May 13, 2004

While the elite former women's colleges inch toward gender parity, a female stronghold is developing among the low-cost community colleges, where many of the students are the first female members of their families to read and write.

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While the elite former women's colleges inch toward gender parity, a female stronghold is developing among the low-cost community colleges, where many of the students are the first female members of their families to read and write.
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Daycare at Hostos Community College

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)--Both colleges are in the New York metropolitan area. At both, female students outnumber males 3-to-1.

Otherwise, Sarah Lawrence College (74 percent female) and Eugenio Maria de Hostos Community College (76 percent female) are a study in contrasts. And in their opposing ways, theymirror opposing national trends in highereducation for women.

While Sarah Lawrence sprawls across acres of lawn in one of the most affluent villages of Westchester County, a few miles to the south, Hostos occupies three utilitarian buildings in the South Bronx, part of the poorest congressional district in the United States.

Sarah Lawrence, founded in 1927, enrolled its first male student in 1968. Eugenio Maria de Hostos Community College opened the same year and was co-educational from the start.

While Sarah Lawrence may still support the somewhat privileged image of women's educational facilities, the fact is they are enrolling more men and inching toward gender parity. Meanwhile, the female composition of workaday two-year degree schools like Hostos is growing every year.

At community colleges as diverse as The Peralta Colleges (Oakland, Calif.), Pikes Peak Community College (Colorado Springs, Colo.) and Alabama Southern Community College (in four rural Alabama communities), women are now a larger percentage of the student body than at such schools as Vassar, Bennington and Skidmore, once all-female.


Glimpses of Work-in-Progress Lives

As glimpses of three women enrolled in community colleges around New York show, the schools are drawing many sorts of women for many different reasons.

But Sonia Beatances, a nursing student at Hostos, summed up their universal appeal: "Money."

Sarah Lawrence is private, with an annual tuition of $30,824. Hostos is part of the public City University of New York and costs a student $2,726. The average student in the City University system comes from a family whose annual income is three-quarters of a Sarah Lawrence student's yearly tuition.

Hostos' tuition is reasonable for Beatances, a single mother from El Salvador. The two-year structure also means she only has to pay for two years of school (even though she realizes that at the pace she's going, she will probably take her more than two years to graduate). The school is also close to her neighborhood. That means she can walk home from her classes--which she attends after $7.84-an-hour shifts in a garment factory--and saves on bus and subway fare.

An additional and crucial attraction of Hostos are the school's day-care facilities. In Beatances' native village, women often went to larger nearby towns to work and left children in the care of grandmothers and aunts. In New York, thousands of miles from that support network, she despaired of finding anyone to care for her 3-year-old daughter. "I couldn't go to school if the daycare wasn't here," she said. "And the daycare is free."

And with a degree in practical nursing, she hopes to command a higher starting salary--between $27,000 and $35,000, according to the New York State Department of Labor--than many graduates of four-year institutions.

Svetlana Proznev is pursuing a certification program for paralegals--another overwhelmingly female field--at Kingsboro Community College in Brooklyn, another of the city's public university's two-year schools.


Starting Over in Different Ways

Proznev speaks English tinted only with the slightest accent from her native Uzbekistan, where she and her husband (who didn't emigrate with her) were doctors. Beatances knew no English when she arrived in the Bronx from rural El Salvador. Both women, however, were in the same boat when they came to school. As Beatances puts it, they had to "start over."

"We need to work," Proznev told Women's eNews. "And we don't have the same choices as people who were born in this country."

Janet Fallon, a student at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft, N.J., is also starting over.

In a leafy suburban enclave, however, Brookdale seems more like Sarah Lawrence than Hostos. And unlike Proznev and Beatances, Fallon grew up nearby. But after her children left home, her husband left her.

"For the first time in my life, I was on my own," she recalled.

Like Beatances and Proznev, Fallon's admission exam results required her to take remedial classes in writing. She also needed additional work in math to bring her up to speed. "I hadn't used any of it in 30 years," she said.

All three women were also tutored, a common feature of community colleges. According to the 2001 CUNY Chancellor's Report, the system's two-year institutions spend four times as much per student on tutoring and other academic support as the system's four-year colleges.

While Proznev is herself a professional and Fallon was married to one, many women in community colleges--such as Beatances--are the first female members of their families to get any sort of education at all.

Beatances said she didn't realize that women could attend college until she came to the United States.

Justine Nicholas is a freelance writer in New York. She also teaches English at LaGuardia Community College in New York.

For more information:

Community College Survey of Student Engagement:
http://www.ccsse.org