Many women who visit this site are returning to higher education after time away. Earlier essays have covered topics such as how to find a mentor as a student, how to be a good mentee, practical considerations for a return to college (both part 1 and part 2), and profiles of inspiring women as adult students, both written and podcast. An overarching goal for adult students learning to leverage mentoring or manage an effective family schedule is persistence, or continuing to make progress toward a degree even when life provides opposition. My research on adult students’ persistence suggests that ideal social or material circumstances can help persistence, but possibly more important are the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and what choices are appropriate for us. I call this process “framing.”
The concept of framing emerged when I noticed that my study participants frequently mentioned reminding themselves to stay positive about college–and, that their reminders tended to shift over time. Often they first described an experience one way, but later recharacterized it differently so that it was more consistent with the current version of their story. It was as if they were choosing a frame in which to display a picture. The size, shape, and placement of the frame determined what was visible, despite the existence of the rest of the picture. From a variety of possibilities, they eliminated most options from consideration–even options that other people might consider viable–so that they could focus energy and action on a specific course, in this case college persistence.
The process of framing, through defining, selecting, and eliminating choices, appeared in all participants’ experiences. Sometimes framing or reframing happened at the urging of another person, such as a parent, advisor, spouse, or mentor whose words carried special weight or authority. Sometimes it happened because of personal events that suddenly altered perception, like pregnancy, miscarriage, job loss, or death of loved ones. Sometimes it happened when a participant used self-talk to deliberately keep a certain perspective and avoid other perspectives. Framing did not always happen consistently, and it took time to build, but it was a powerful influence on persistence.
For instance, Joy, in a household with two full-time incomes, felt that she could only go to school if her parents helped pay for it “because if I had to pay for it myself, I probably would have to quit. I wouldn’t be able to do it. I just, there’s no way I could afford it.” Sarah, paying for full-time enrollment with her earnings as a part-time CNA and supporting her daughter with state assistance, felt that she could keep going financially: “I don’t know how I can do it, but I’m doing it…I’m going to live with what I got.” Why was school financially possible for Sarah on an income that for Joy would have been financially prohibitive? The concept of framing helps explain: adult students hold beliefs about who they are, what resources are for, and what priority to place on college. They will use their resources in accordance with those beliefs, and they will justify this use by framing it as “the only possible way” rather than by saying that they did not feel like paying for an eliminated option.
Several participants changed the way they framed themselves or their persistence over the course of the study year, moving from a narrative of frustration and helplessness to one of agency. Marisa’s words best illustrate this shift. At the beginning of the study, Marisa seemed angry and stressed. She was starting her first semester at a community college after attempting several classes at an online for-profit university. She talked about her husband’s pressure for her to attend college:
“I can’t think of, you know, what he’s really pushing me for…Why would I wanna be going back into school?… this is not really possible, you know, for me to come back to school …I didn’t wanna go back to school.”
At this point, Marisa felt helpless about college. She framed her husband as the agent who drove her enrollment, even against her will. She did not claim responsibility or credit, and she did not attribute control of her persistence to herself.
With her strong resentment, I did not expect that Marisa would persist, either in the study or at the college. To my surprise, she not only participated in all interviews, but she continued to take and pass classes for the next three semesters, persisting beyond others who had less tension at home, more logistical support, and a lower emotional cost for that support. What changed was her perspective on herself, not her logistical or emotional barriers. It appeared that she stayed because, as she realized that she could get good grades, she initiated action and took responsibility for her education. By the last interview, Marisa was cheerful and her framing had changed. She talked frequently about her power to affect her own grades:
“I’m like, just because you get a bad grade doesn’t mean that you can’t ask that teacher to give you some extra credit …if I get a lower grade on a different paper, then I’m not as, like mad at myself because I was like, well, I kind of didn’t do as well on that paper, but at least I got the extra credit.”
Contrary to her original words, she attributed her return to school to her own desire for advancement: “I went back because I realized that I can actually, you know, go up that step on the ladder in my profession and still keep doing what I like doing.”
At first, helplessness marked Marisa’s interactions with her teachers: She could not make the computer work right, she could not get in touch with the teacher when she needed to, she could not take care of her child while trying to work on school projects. By the end of the year, Marisa’s words depicted a different person—someone who not only could successfully participate in higher education, but did so willingly, with a strong identity of self-efficacy as a persistent student. She persisted because she reframed herself as an agent for her own education and then acted as such. Reframing reduced dissonance within Marisa, perhaps because it was easier than pursuing a course of action while believing that she was not the agent for it. This may be particularly important for adult learners who are returning to college because of the sudden loss of previously stable sources of identity, such as a job or a marriage.
So what does this mean in practical terms for those who want to return to school and maximize their chances of persistence? By all means, get the scheduling and budgeting and childcare figured out. But also, change your frame to one of persistence. Find mentors who will talk you through the process based on their own successful persistence. Find a cheering section, people who will remind you that you are persistent and that your degree goal is feasible. Find and renew any strength you draw from spiritual promptings toward persistence. Repeatedly tell yourself the story of your own persistence and your own resilience. Your positive inner frame is just as important as the outer logistics in promoting your college success.
Rosemary Capps Bartlett earned a BS in Sociology from Brigham Young University, a MA in Teaching International Languages (TESOL) from California State University, Chico, and a PhD in Educational Leadership and Policy from the University of Utah. She has taught reading, writing, and teaching to adult literacy students, community college students, university freshmen, graduate students, and university faculty members. She enjoys gardens, dancing, triathlons, exploring the profession of homemaking, and spending time with her husband and baby daughter.