By: Adriana Alba

May 10, 2023

Online education can provide a range of advantages for women, particularly those who face barriers to accessing traditional education due to family responsibilities, financial constraints, or social norms. These programs attract women students because of their flexibility and the possibility of managing existing family commitments while obtaining a degree-level education. Although there is an extensive research literature focused on the demands of working students (for reviews, see Creed et al., 2015; Giancola et al., 2008; Park & Sprung, 2013), there are comparably fewer studies on the challenges women face when pursuing degrees in higher education as nontraditional students (for reviews see Lin, 2016; Osam et al., 2016; Remenick, 2019). Perhaps the most significant factors that lead to student attrition are paid employment and family commitments as reasons for students’ dropouts (Moore & Greenland, 2017; Perry et al., 2018; Stoessel et al., 2015), the latter of which is consistent with studies that show family and community obligations as constraints for women pursuing post-secondary degrees (Ekstrom,1972). 

Online education has the potential to create a safe and supportive environment for women who are looking to further their education, while traditional classroom settings can be intimidating for women. As an example of why traditional classrooms can present challenges for women students, a research study conducted by Rocca (2010) found that female students are more likely than their male counterparts to experience incivility and disrespectful behavior from their instructors and peers. This type of discrimination or harassment can have a negative impact on women’s academic performance and overall well-being. The online setting can offer a solution to this problem by providing a virtual space where women can learn without fear of mistreatment, as well as receiving personalized support and resources to help them succeed. In a 2006 study Price found that online education can provide access to a variety of support services, including online tutors and mentors, that can help women overcome academic challenges and build confidence as independent learners. Other types of resources, such as multimedia learning materials and interactive simulations, can enhance women’s learning experiences and help them achieve their educational goals. Similarly, Sullivan (2002) found that online education can provide opportunities for women to connect with other learners and instructors in a more personalized and supportive way than in traditional classroom settings. For example, online discussion forums and chat rooms can offer a space for women to ask questions, share ideas, and receive feedback that can help them improve their understanding of course material and develop critical thinking skills. In this sense, online education has the potential to help women become confident, independent learners who are better equipped to achieve their educational and career goals.

Institutional Support 

Tait (2000) defines support in the distance learning context as ‘the range of services both for individuals and for students in groups which complement the course materials or learning resources that are uniform for all learners’ (p.289). When considering the functions these support services provide, he identifies three types: cognitive support (i.e. supporting learning), affective support (i.e. ensuring a supportive environment) and systemic support (i.e. effective administrative systems). His ideas for student support emphasize the importance of creating a supportive and engaging learning environment for distance learners by considering: (1) Providing comprehensive orientation and induction that includes clear instructions on how to access and use course materials, as well as introducing students to the academic support services available to them; (2) Offering flexible learning opportunities that allow students to fit their studies around other commitments, this includes offering asynchronous learning materials and allowing students to work at their own pace; (3) Providing personalized support by offering one-on-one support through virtual office hours or tutoring, as well as using data analytics to identify students who may be struggling and offering targeted support; (4) Fostering a sense of community, Tait believes that distance learners need to feel connected to their peers and instructors in order to succeed. In that sense, virtual discussion forums, group projects, and other collaborative activities can help students connect with one another.

Related to the topic of student support, Vincent Tinto (2003) examines two types of support higher education institutions should provide: academic and social. He emphasizes the importance of creating a holistic, supportive environment that is welcoming to all students, regardless of their background or prior academic experience. To do so, he suggests institutions should foster a sense of community among students, providing opportunities for engagement and collaboration, and offering resources to help students succeed. 

In terms of academic support, Tinto mentions services like tutoring, advising, and study skills workshops; while social support can come from peer mentoring, counseling services, and other programs that help students feel connected to their campus community. Regarding the importance of faculty engagement in supporting student success, Tinto points out that creating opportunities for faculty to connect with students can be done through office hours, mentoring programs, or extracurricular activities. 

In sum, when institutions take into account considerations to support women as nontraditional students they can also create resources that benefit the student body as a whole and promote a more inclusive and supportive learning environment (Andrysiak et al., 2022).


Andrysiak, C., Mizock, L., Webber, L., & Kranzberg, M. (2022). “It takes a village:” Reentry women’s perseverance in completing a clinical or counseling psychology doctorate. Journal of Women and Gender in Higher Education, 15(4), 351-374. doi:10.1080/26379112.2022.2134142

Creed, Peter & French, Jessica & Hood, Michelle. (2015). Working while studying at university: The relationship between work benefits and demands and engagement and well-being. Journal of Vocational Behavior. 86. 48-57. 10.1016/j.jvb.2014.11.002. 

Ekstrom, R. B. (1972). The study of dropouts: Empirical findings and theoretical implications. Child Development, 43(1), 51-70.

Giancola, Jennifer & Munz, David & Trares, Shawn. (2009). First Versus Continuing-Generation Adult Students On College Perceptions: Are Differences Actually Because of Demographic Variance?. Adult Education Quarterly – ADULT EDUC QUART. 58. 214-228. 10.1177/0741713608314088. 

Lin, X. (2016). Barriers and Challenges of Female Adult Students Enrolled in Higher Education: A Literature Review. Higher Education Studies, 6, 119-126.

Moore, J. C., & Greenland, A. (2017). Who drops out of college and why? Findings from a national survey of college students. The Journal of Continuing Higher Education, 65(2), 105-117.

Osam, E. K., Bergman, M., & Cumberland, D. M. (2017). An Integrative Literature Review on the Barriers Impacting Adult Learners’ Return to College. Adult Learning, 28(2), 54–60.

Park, Y., & Sprung, J. M. (2013). Work–school conflict and health outcomes: Beneficial resources for working college students. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 18(4), 384–394.

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Remenick, L. (2019). Services and support for nontraditional students in higher education: A historical literature review. Journal of Adult and Continuing Education, 25(1), 113–130.

Rocca, K.A. (2010). Student Participation in the College Classroom: An Extended Multidisciplinary Literature Review. Communication Education, 59, 185 – 213.

Stoessel, K., McFarland, M., Lemaire, P., & Stricker, L. J. (2015). Women’s college persistence: The role of social and academic integration. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice, 16(4), 517-536.

Sullivan, P. (2002). “It’s Easier to Be Yourself When You Are Invisible”: Female College Students Discuss Their Online Classroom Experiences. Innovative Higher Education, 27, 129-144.

Tait, A. (2000). Planning student support for open and distance learning. Open Learning, 15(3), 287 – 99.

Tinto, V. (2003). Establishing conditions for student success, In L. Thomas, M. Cooper, & J. Quinn (Eds.), Improving completion rates among disadvantaged students (1-9). Britain: Cromwell Press Ltd.

About the Author

Adriana is a graduate student, studying Instructional Psychology & Technology, and an instructional designer for Brigham Young University – Idaho.