More women are going to college than ever before, and overall, have higher enrollment and graduation rates than men. Still, a quick and successful 4 years in college doesn’t come easily for everyone. A noteworthy percentage of women (and men) who start college at a four-year university don’t complete their degree.
The 2011 graduation rate for full-time, first-time undergraduate female students who began their bachelor's degree at a 4-year degree institution in the fall of 2005 was 61 percent (for men, 59 percent), according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That leaves 49 percent of women who don’t make it through.
Cost is certainly one of the major reasons, but it isn’t always about money. Sometimes, even with the means to go, college isn’t the best fit for every 18-year-old who packs their bags and heads off to a campus life of dorm rooms and mess halls. The trouble is, once you leave, it can be difficult to go back. Family, time and the need for income often trump taking courses.
For Farish Perlman, the path to college was clear and well funded by a good undergraduate education and a supportive family. The fall after she graduated high school from St. Andrew’s in Maryland, she made her way to a small liberal arts college in North Carolina because, she states, “That is just what everyone I went to school with did. Everyone went to college.”
But for Farish, now 39, being a college student was trying to fit a circle into a square peg. After a tough freshman year, she decided to take a year off to regroup. She gathered her stuff and moved to Charleston, South Carolina and started to work full-time. A year turned into seven, and a husband and two kids later, she took classes every now and then, but did not have the time or energy to commit to completing her degree.
But after a divorce, her life and her goals shifted. And at age 33, she started a serious commitment to getting her degree. This past May, 21 years after she first entered that North Carolina campus, she graduated with honors.
Here is how she made her way back to school, how she juggled two active boys, a new marriage, work, and classes, and what she would tell her sons if they ever wanted to drop out of college.
Tell a little bit about your life path and why you ended up leaving college before you were finished?
I was born and raised in an Upper Northwest neighborhood in Washington, DC and graduated from a private high school in Bethesda, Maryland in 1993. That fall I left home to attend a small liberal arts college in North Carolina, so my initial foray into college was a pretty traditional route. Academics have been a struggle for me through my life, though, especially math, science, and foreign language, and I never felt that any of it came easily. So after a year at college, I felt that school was still a struggle and decided to take some time off. At the time, I thought I would work for a year and then go back.
Things didn’t quite work out that way – I moved to Charleston, South Carolina and wound up staying there for almost seven years. My oldest son was born there and my younger son was born shortly after I returned to the DC area. Being a mom became my primary responsibility and going back to school took a back seat, especially when I became a single mom.
What were the key factors that made you decide to return to school? How old were you when you returned?
Even though I left college, I never fully left the idea of returning. I knew how important it was to finish; just making the leap back in was very difficult. Off and on as I could fit it in, I took a handful of classes, but I was never able to fully commit myself to school. In 2006, I remarried and my husband from the beginning always said that he knew that finishing my degree was important to me, so when I was ready, we would make it work, both financially and time wise. I was 33 when I officially started back by diving into summer classes at my local community college before transferring to Trinity Washington University in Washington, DC.
What has it been like working, being a mom, and going to school? How did your family react to your busy schedule?
Hectic is the best word to describe how the last six years have been. It meant that I needed to be organized about schedules - mine, the kids and household things. For the most part, I was very lucky that I had a job that supported my endeavor, so I was able to go to classes during the day, mostly while the kids were in school. Homework was difficult, though, since I usually couldn’t even start it until the kids were in bed. There were a lot of late nights. Things did change over time as the kids got older - they are now 12 and 16 - so I was able to take classes that might extend slightly into when they were out of school.
One of the most challenging semesters, though, was when I had to take a three-hour night class. It was rougher than any of us expected. Once my husband was able to establish his schedule with the evening routine, things did get better. My younger son in particular was not thrilled with me being away during dinner and bedtime, but he adjusted really well after the first week or so. But, that is definitely one of the times that most sticks out as a challenge.
Now that you finished, how does it feel and do you have a plan?
When I graduated in May, I felt relief. For me, school has always been daunting, so getting over that finish line; it was a really awesome feeling. My plan for the future? For me, going back to school was never about advancing a particular career that I was in at the time, so I am currently figuring out what type of work I think will fit in with my lifestyle of wanting to spend time with my family, but also find something that is something I look forward to being part of and energetic about.
What would you tell other women who are thinking of going back? Was returning worth it?
I am very glad that I went back and finished. It was tough. At times I would look at my husband, on more than one occasion, and say, “That’s it. I cannot do this.” To which he would just say, “If the kids said that you would tell them to have a better attitude,” and he was right. It was a lot of work, late nights, weekends and not attending social events so that I could get work done. All of that said, I am so glad that I got the chance to complete my degree and it was more special since my boys and my husband were so supportive.
Your oldest son will be in college in a few years. What would you say to him if he told you he was going to leave before he finished?
I would ask him to reconsider. I had the best of intentions to go back to school and finish after a little time off. It is easy to say, “I just need a break.” But getting the momentum to return is really difficult, especially as you get older and you start to have other responsibilities that require your time and attention. Sometimes, pushing through to the end is just part of growing up.
By Suzette McLoone Lohmeyer