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Education Issues for African American Women

Introduction to the Literature Review

This chapter reviews the existing literature in support of the research study. The literature reviewed presented a discussion on the barriers and success strategies for African American women to obtain higher education. Also, a discussion of the Critical Race, Social Learning, and Feminist theories was included that formed the understanding of African American females’ educational development. Despite the growing awareness of the problem in the literature, little attention has been given to studies of overcoming barriers and obstacles to higher education for African American women (Baber, 2012; Charleston, 2012; Felder & Barker, 2013). The problems of African American students in the sphere of education were traditionally discussed without direct reference to community colleges as a specific type of an educational institution. In their research, Felder and Barker (2013) studied the African American students’ experiences only in elite and Southern institutions, such as the University of California and Southern States University. There are gaps in the scholarly discussion of the African American students’ barriers, obstacles, and challenges in receiving the Associate degree.

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According to the literature, African American women routinely experience problems and face challenges in clearing a path to higher education. The research literature has identified common barriers hindering African American women’s experiences in higher education in a bid to examine and identify what barriers can prevent them from entering college and completing their Associate degree. Some of the identified barriers can be grouped into the following categories: stereotypes, racial and gender bias, lack of networking opportunities, and lack of organizational commitment. The research will add to the knowledge base to better understand the educational challenges and success factors of African American women and how public administrators can make changes in Prince George’s Community College (PGCC) in addition to the effectively implemented programs for the promotion of diversity, such as Women of Wisdom and Vocational Support Services (Prince George’s Community College, 2015).

The Role of Public Administration and Higher Education

Public administration is associated with providing public-oriented services and addressing different types of issues in various spheres of social life, including education. From this perspective, public administrators are concentrated on researching the needs of certain groups of people to propose solutions to problems or barriers with the help of public resources and appropriate policies or initiatives (Fenwick & McMillan, 2014). At the current stage, efforts of public administrators in addressing the issue of receiving a higher education by minority groups are viewed as successful, but there are still areas for improvement because of the impact of political, economic, and social factors that include the focus on students’ ethnicity, race, gender, and status as barriers to their education. Ringeling (2015) also notes that public administration as a field of practice concerns the preparation of public administrators as providers of public services, and it is also related to the development and implementation of certain policies and strategies to promote the change in public agencies, institutions, and society. Thus, in the field of higher education in the United States, activities of public administrators are directed toward improving the availability of higher education for African Americans with the focus on women’s opportunities and experiences regarding obtaining an academic degree.

Researchers pay much attention to discussing the role of public administration and associated services in the context of higher education and individuals’ access to it. According to Shand and Howell (2015), the role of public administration in the sphere of higher education is important because postsecondary educational institutions are oriented to covering the needs of people regarding their education and further career development, and public administrators can regulate and manage all issues and obstacles faced by individuals on their paths to higher education. Furthermore, many cases associated with the sphere of higher education can be resolved only involving public administrators as effective managers and even policymakers, as it is in the case of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) initiatives (Fenwick & McMillan, 2014; Strayhorn, 2015). Therefore, the role of public administration in regulating activities of higher educational institutions is considerable, and PGCC can be viewed as a model because of its effective practices, including the development of the Women of Wisdom program for promoting female students and the Vocational Support Services program for additional mentoring and support for students (Prince George’s Community College, 2015).

Public administrators are focused on formulating questions to resolve, researching issues and related facts, and proposing effective strategies to address the identified problems. According to Shand and Howell (2015), it is important to discuss the role of public administration in relation to higher education from the perspective of public administrators’ effectiveness in resolving all issues that can be observed in modern educational institutions in the United States. One of the public strategies aimed at attracting African American women to U.S. colleges and universities was the effort of the Obama Administration to involve African Americans in historically black colleges, community colleges, and predominantly white institutions for receiving the STEM degree (Alexander & Hermann, 2016; Jackson, 2013). The principle of STEM education was formulated by the Obama Administration as a priority for opening these educational fields for minorities, including women (Alexander & Hermann, 2016). The reason was in the fact that women of color were previously underrepresented at faculties associated with obtaining a degree in technologies or engineering.

The role of public administration in guaranteeing higher education for African American women is also in developing programs and initiatives to support low-income female students, provide them with scholarships, and organize funds to address the needs of minorities (Fenwick & McMillan, 2014). According to Ringeling (2015), efforts of public administrators in the United States regarding the attraction of African American women to higher educational institutions led to increasing the number of women of color in historically black colleges, community colleges, and predominantly white institutions. These figures still need to be monitored because large numbers of minority women continue to experience barriers to higher education. Therefore, more activities of public administrators should be oriented to addressing the problem of the underrepresentation of black female students in postsecondary educational institutions.

Historical Overview of African American Women Obtaining Higher Education

The problem of the disproportionate college enrollment in relation to African American women can be discussed as having historical background. African American women’s opportunities to obtain higher education were always limited in the United States, and the situation began to slightly change only in the 1960s after the decision declared in relation to the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954). Following this decision, the racial segregation in the U.S. educational institutions became viewed as unconstitutional (Garibaldi, 2014). However, in spite of the increased higher education enrollment for minorities, African American women were still underrepresented in colleges and universities in comparison to white females (Garibaldi, 2014; Iloh & Toldson, 2013). In the 1960s and 1970s, the affirmative action policies allowed for improving the situation for women in historically black institutions, but overall rates of African American women with academic degrees remained to below.

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Although rates of graduating from high school for African American women increased significantly in the 1970s and 1980s, their enrollment in higher educational institutions was still limited. In his descriptive quantitative study, Garibaldi (2014) examined the situation to African Americans and stated that the percentage of women of color in colleges and universities of the United States remained to be low in comparison to the number of white students. Thus, “59,100 Black students graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1976 compared with 60,700 in 1981—an increase of only 1,600 Black graduates between those two years” was observed, which means the increase is only about 2.5% (Garibaldi, 2014, p. 372). However, in the 1970s, the number of women of color with a degree was higher than the number of African American males who received academic degrees in educational institutions.

Historically, the low degree completion for African American females was associated with a range of factors, including social and economic ones, as well as these women’s choices of vocational training. As a result, during the 1980s and 1990s, the majority of African American women received professional training and were not involved in studying engineering, technologies, and science. Thus, in 1982, “college enrollment after high school was 40 percent for Blacks compared with 53 percent for White students” (Iloh & Toldson, 2013, p. 205). Besides, the key focus was on nursing, education, and human resource management (Bartman, 2015). Felder and Barker (2013) analyzed the data for the 1990s and 2000s, and they stated that the involvement of African American women in receiving doctoral degrees was also minimal, only about 10%. Furthermore, traditionally the limited number of African Americans studied in higher educational institutions, and the limited number of women of color was the part of the faculty to support minorities.

Many studies have examined the situation in obtaining higher education by African American women. McCoy (2014) noted that, although statistics demonstrate that more African American women received academic degrees in comparison to black males during the period of the 1980s, and they were actively enrolled in educational institutions in the 1990s, the situation was positive only with the focus on historically black institutions or community colleges. The number of African American males who studied in predominantly white institutions or who received masters and doctoral degrees was always higher, accentuating the gender gap and inequality in the sphere of higher education (Iloh & Toldson, 2013; McCoy, 2014). As a result, a historical overview of females’ educational experience indicates that it is possible to speak about certain barriers for African American women on the paths to higher education.

Current Status of African American Women in Higher Education

The current status of African American females in higher education is important to be studied in detail to conclude on possible changes in women’s access to receiving academic degrees. According to the data collected and analyzed by National Center for Education Statistics (2016), the percentage of African American female students enrolled in postsecondary educational institutions increased from 19.1% in 1985 to 35.7% in 2015. For African American males, this percentage changed from 20.2% in 1985 to 34.1% in 2015 (Figure 1). It is possible to observe that the number of African American female students studying in colleges is slightly higher than the number of African American male students (National Center for Education Statistics, 2016). However, while comparing the data for African American and white female students, it is important to note that in 2015, 44.5% of white females were enrolled in U.S. colleges in comparison to 35.7% of African American female students (Figure 1).

The percentage of students enrolled in post-secondary institutions, by gender and ethnicity, 1985-2015.
Figure 1. The percentage of students enrolled in post-secondary institutions, by gender and ethnicity, 1985-2015 (National Center for Education Statistics, 2016).

While discussing the situation regarding the enrollment of women of color in colleges, it is possible to focus on the tendency typical of higher education in the United States: the number of women studying in post-secondary institutions is higher than the number of men. According to Garibaldi (2014), this tendency can be observed since the 1990s. Nevertheless, the number of African American female students who received degrees from 1990 to 2012 is low while comparing it to the number of white women who received the same degrees (Iloh & Toldson, 2013). Felder and Barker (2013) noted that, despite the improved access of women of color to higher education, the observed racial disparity does not allow for speaking about removing all barriers for Africa American women to obtaining a degree. In spite of policies oriented to increasing the enrollment of African American female students in colleges and universities, the graduation rates for women of color are also low because many of them leave institutions without receiving diplomas because of a range of factors and barriers, including the lack of support, family situations, discrimination, and the need for a full-time job (Bartman, 2015). The literature and statistics demonstrate that there is still a gap in the number of African American female students receiving degrees in comparison to white females.

Researchers are also concentrated on the current status of African American female leaders in higher educational institutions. Wallace, Budden, Juban, and Budden (2014) paid attention to the fact that the lack of African American females at faculties of different institutions is one of the reasons for the limited number of black female students in these colleges and universities. A positive tendency can be observed only with reference to historically black institutions and community colleges (Jackson, 2013). According to Davis and Maldonado (2015), both African American females and males became presidents of or took leadership positions in about 90 historically black institutions, but the percentage of African American female leaders in postsecondary institutions is only about 4-6%. Furthermore, when women of color seek admission to a predominantly white institution, they usually face significant barriers (Wallace et al., 2014). This tendency is associated with the comparably low number of women of color involved as tutors or professors in predominantly white institutions. From this perspective, the literature accentuates a significant gap in the representation of not only black female students in colleges and universities of the United States but also black female faculty members and leaders.

Lack of Organizational Commitment

The review of the literature on the topic of African American women in higher education indicates that researchers are interested in studying causes and factors that can be associated with black females’ impossibility to graduate from U.S. colleges and universities even if they were successfully enrolled in institutions. According to Bartman (2015), the problem is in the lack of commitment and motivation because of observed barriers and challenges. Thus, Felder and Barker (2013) stated that many African American females choose to leave institutions before graduating because of facing such problems as discrimination, prejudice, the lack of support, economic problems, and family issues, including marriage and pregnancy. PGCC tried to address these issues with the help of implementing the Women of Wisdom and Vocational Support Services programs oriented to minority students to provide counseling, mentoring, and support (Prince George’s Community College, 2015).

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McCoy (2014) noted that many black females are not aware of their opportunities for future career development if they obtain a degree because of being afraid of bias and obstacles. Furthermore, having economic and social barriers, African American women can demonstrate the lack of commitment because of focusing on professions that do not require specific education or on their families. All these factors seem to influence the level of black female students’ commitment to studying in postsecondary institutions.

While focusing on such important factors as the lack of support from peers and faculty members, researchers claim that African American females can have little motivation to receive an academic degree because they do not experience some assistance during their study (Felder & Barker, 2013). Davis and Maldonado (2015) paid attention to the fact that African American female students need mentors in colleges and universities to improve their experience and address possible barriers. Such mentors should be representatives of minorities to increase black women’s satisfaction and motivation to receive an academic degree. Thus, female students can experience certain difficulties during their studies. According to Bartman (2015), “there are some institutions where enrollment of Black women is so low that there is no sense of community for these students on campus and therefore their identity development lacks appropriate cultural references,” and this situation negatively affects “retention and attainment rates and adds to the lack of critical mass of this particular student group” (p. 4-5). As a result, the lack of commitment and interest in the study can lead to absenteeism or low attendance rates of African American female students.

Researchers focus on the idea that the problem is in the lack of comfortable conditions for minority students in U.S. colleges and universities. The culture of predominantly white institutions is oriented to supporting white female and male students. However, even though historically black institutions can promote the development of the black culture and the sense of belonging to a community, there are no effectively implemented policies, strategies, and practices that can be used to attract and retain African American students to guarantee their successful graduation (Felder & Barker, 2013; Jackson, 2013). A similar situation is observed at community colleges where the number of African American students is high, but the attention paid to their support is not enough (Iloh & Toldson, 2013). All the discussed factors can influence black female students’ experience regarding their study at higher educational institutions and motivation to receive a diploma.

Critical Race Theory

During the recent three decades, Critical Race Theory has been actively used by researchers to critically analyze racial relations in different contexts, including the educational one. The theory was formulated by researchers for the legal context in the 1980s-1990s, and Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic formulated its widely applicable premises in 2001 (Ledesma & Calderón, 2015). The key assumption of the Critical Race Theory is that it is possible to observe white supremacy and racism in all spheres of U.S. society (Ledesma & Calderón, 2015; Savas, 2014). Thus, according to Savas (2014), this theory declares that “racism still exists in our society and is part of our everyday reality but in more subtle, invisible, and insidious ways in contrast to the past” (p. 508). Furthermore, the goal of this theory is to demonstrate tools available for destroying racist structures in U.S. society. The theory is also aimed at explaining relationships between the idea of race and its representation in different social contexts (Harris, 2017). In the 1990s-2000s, researchers began to apply this theory to analyzing experiences of racial minorities in different environments, including the field of higher education.

Critical Race Theory explains social dynamics in the U.S. society with reference to claims that all power is concentrated in the hands of whites, and, as a result, representatives of racial minorities can experience certain challenges and barriers while obtaining higher education or seeking a job (Savas, 2014). Theorists state that this tendency is explained with the focus on the history of white privilege associated with U.S. society (Ledesma & Calderón, 2015; Savas, 2014). Harris (2017) notes that this theory is also effective to discuss and analyze the phenomenon of racial stereotypes in various social sectors. Therefore, Critical Race Theory is widely referred to in the literature on problems in education associated with representatives of different races.

While applying Critical Race Theory to studying African Americans’ experiences related to obtaining higher education, it is possible to state that this theoretical model is appropriate to explain cases of racial discrimination in educational institutions, achievements in the field associated with the civil rights legislation, and the idea of racial differentiation that can influence educational experiences of people with different ethnic backgrounds (Ledesma & Calderón, 2015; Savas, 2014). This theory tends to explain why those African American women who are focused on obtaining higher education can face specific barriers and determine factors that can contribute to the development of institutional bias (Ledesma & Calderón, 2015). From this perspective, it is important to note that Critical Race Theory can provide an appropriate theoretical framework for the study where participants belong to the minority group to clarify the connection between race and students’ experiences in educational institutions.

Social Learning Theory

Social Learning Theory is a widely known psychological theoretical model that was formulated by Albert Bandura in the 1970s. This theory views learning as an interactive process that is highly influenced by social relations and interactions (Kattari, 2015). As a result, observations of people and social models can influence an individual’s beliefs, values, activities, and behaviors. According to researchers, Social Learning Theory is appropriate to discuss not only how people learn and follow certain social models but also how their actions and socialization depend on different settings (Hanna, Crittenden, & Crittenden, 2013; Kattari, 2015). Therefore, the assumptions related to this theory are the following ones: people’s behaviors depend on their social learning and experiences, and people’s behaviors depend on contexts and expected or desired outcomes.

Researchers accentuate the importance of Social Learning Theory in terms of explaining reciprocal interactions between individuals and environments in a range of spheres, including education as the key area where social learning plays a critical role (Hanna et al., 2013; Kattari, 2015). Thus, this theory proposes many perspectives from which it is possible to explain the challenges or barriers faced by African American women in association with their education. From this point, Social Learning Theory explains that individual perceptions of obstacles and problems can depend on previous learning of social models or their previous experiences (Hanna et al., 2013). This approach can explain behaviors of tutors and peers who interact with women of color and have certain prejudice, as well as behaviors of African American female students who can expect bias and behave accordingly. Social Learning Theory suggests that all participants involved in communication or interaction in a specific setting choose behavioral patterns depending on their previous social learning, and their visions and behaviors can influence each other.

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The key principles and assumptions of Social Learning Theory can be effectively used for clarifying African American women’s experiences in higher educational institutions. Women of color should learn how to successfully interact with representatives of different cultures, and they need to adapt to new social models or specific models followed by the majority of students in a concrete educational environment (Thomas, Wolters, Horn, & Kennedy, 2014). According to the principles of Social Learning Theory, if African American females have successfully adapted to a new environment in which white or male students can dominate, they experience fewer obstacles and challenges (Hanna et al., 2013; Kattari, 2015). Furthermore, visions, values, and beliefs of these women can change depending on the setting in which they interact. Therefore, this theory is selected as a theoretical framework for this study because it can explain how behaviors of African American women and students in colleges can be modified with reference to specific social models and patterns they observe in their daily life.

Feminist Theory

Feminist Theory was developed in the 20th century by a group of researchers as the continuation of discussing the aspects of feminism. This theory is aimed at understanding inequalities that are observed in society in relation to treating females and determining their roles in contrast to males (Collins, 2015; Friedman & Ayres, 2013). Feminist Theory also explains such aspects as discrimination, inequality, oppression, sexual objectification, and stereotyping with the focus on the gender factor (Carastathis, 2014; Friedman & Ayres, 2013). From this point, Feminist Theory is important to discuss and clarify details of gender inequality that can be observed in different social contexts, and this theory is crucial to guarantee a better understanding of specific barriers and challenges associated with women’s positions in society and gender discrimination oriented to them.

It is important to note that Feminist Theory unites a range of feminist theoretical models and movements that differ in their approaches to explaining gender differences, inequality in society, and observed oppression to females. Adherents of feminist theories argue that, in the U.S. society, women are often viewed through the lenses of their sex or gender, and specific biases developed with reference to these views influence the success of females about their education and observed workplace practices (Collins, 2015; Friedman & Ayres, 2013). Thus, it is possible to state that many researchers choose to discuss experiences of African American women while obtaining higher education with reference to Feminist Theory because the observed discrimination and structural oppression can be a result of gender-based biases (Carastathis, 2014; Collins, 2015). As a consequence, Feminist Theory is appropriate to explain why African American females in higher educational institutions can be oppressed, offended, abused, and discriminated without reference to their race.

It is stated in the literature on the problem of African American women’s experiences in postsecondary educational institutions that the role of women in the modern society is reconsidered in the context of feminist movements and other social theories, but the application of feminist theories to studying experiences of women of color is still important because they can face different barriers due to their gender (Carastathis, 2014; Collins, 2015; Friedman & Ayres, 2013). While identifying barriers that African American women can face in higher educational institutions, it is possible to explain them with the focus on Feminist Theory in addition to the theories related to the aspects of race and social learning (Collins, 2015; Friedman & Ayres, 2013). Besides, the selection of this theory for the theoretical background is important to conclude about differences in challenges and barriers that can be faced by African American females in comparison to African American males who usually study in the same institutions.

The Theoretical Framework of the Study that Supports the Research Theory

The discussed theories, including the Critical Race, Social Learning, and Feminist theories, represent the theoretical framework for this phenomenological study. Therefore, it is important to explain why these theories have been selected as the background for the study and how they can support the topic of this research. The theoretical principles of phenomenological research should also be discussed in this context as they add to the developed theoretical framework.

Critical Race Theory is one of the theoretical perspectives that support the current research because it is effective to explain why African American women can face certain difficulties on their paths to higher education through the lenses of their race. The reason for choosing this theory is that its assumptions cover such problematic areas as racial discrimination, racial disparities, prejudice, and exclusion, which are important to be discussed while analyzing African American women’s experiences in higher educational institutions (Howard & Navarro, 2016; Ledesma & Calderón, 2015). Applying this theory to the current study, it is possible to understand how the perspectives of race and ethnicity can influence African American women’s attempts to receive a higher education, as well as their interactions in social groups.

Social Learning Theory is selected for this study as an appropriate theoretical model because it can explain African American women’s experiences in higher educational institutions from several viewpoints. The strength of this theory is that it demonstrates how female students can succeed when they adapt to new educational environments and learn patterns followed for interactions in new settings (Hanna et al., 2013; Kattari, 2015). If adaptation is not successful, such students experience problems. Another perspective is that peers and educators in different types of postsecondary institutions model their behaviors depending on the patterns they observe and learn. Thus, this theory is also important to explain the process when groups of students or educators begin to discriminate against minority students while reflecting on the behaviors of each other.

One more important social concept to explain in the study is the concept of gender. Feminist Theory, which is grounded in this concept, is selected for this study because it can be used to clarify how students’ gender can influence their path to higher education, what barriers can be observed on this path, and why men can be viewed as more advantaged than women when they focus on obtaining educational degrees and developing careers (Carastathis, 2014; Friedman & Ayres, 2013). The application of Feminist Theory to the study as part of the theoretical framework is important to provide the background for minority students’ experiences in higher educational institutions with the focus on the aspect of gender.

It is also necessary to refer to the phenomenological theory as part of the framework to support the study. The formulation of the principles of phenomenology depends on the philosophical teachings by such theorists as Husserl and Heidegger (Willis, Sullivan-Bolyai, Knafl, & Cohen, 2016). Thus, Husserl viewed phenomenology as a tool to investigate the lived experiences of individuals, and Heidegger focused on interpreting these experiences (Matua & Van Der Wal, 2015; Sousa, 2014). In this study, the phenomenological approach is applied to examine lived experiences and perceptions of African American female students related to their study in a community college (McCoy, 2014). This framework is important to provide the researcher with opportunities to study barriers faced by African American female students concerning their specific experiences.


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