African American Women’s Education and Barriers

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According to the official statistics, the lack of African Americans receiving higher education contributes greatly to the overall increase in their unemployment rates throughout the U.S. (African American employment, 2014). The issue is especially topical for African American women since, without proper education, they have extremely restricted employment options and are, therefore, especially vulnerable to a variety of economic factors triggering poverty (Levenstein, 2012).

Despite the growing awareness of the problem in the literature, little attention has been given to studies of the need to remove obstacles and overcome barriers to higher education among African American women. After reviewing several sites in the Anne Arundel county area in Maryland, the researcher contacted the Prince George’s Community College Office of Planning, Assessment, and Institutional Research to discuss this campus as a research site for this research.

The Prince George’s CC Mission Statement argues that “Prince George’s Community College transforms students’ lives. The college exists to educate, train, and serve our diverse populations through accessible, affordable, and rigorous learning experiences” (Prince George’s Community College, 2015).

Prince George Community College is one of the educational institutions in the United States where the percentage of African American students is the highest, and the majority of student populations are African American females. Prince George’s Community College tops the list of associate degree producers among African-Americans of any college in the state of Maryland (Prince George’s Community College, 2012). Currently 78.2 %

of the students attending Prince George’s Community are African Americans (American Association of Community Colleges, 2015). Thus, this college was chosen as an appropriate place to sample the experience and perceptions of African American women seeking higher education in this setting and to explore the barriers influencing their experience.

Further information on the college website describes Prince George’s Community College’s philosophies of educating the diverse population.

Prince George’s Community College works to address the educational needs of African Americans in the State of Maryland, and study of female African American students from this institution should provide a clear picture of modern challenges experienced by African American females in choosing education as an opportunity for advancement and growth in urban America (Prince George’s Community College, 2015).

The participants of the research will include African American Women between the ages of 25 and 69 who are obtaining a college degree. The participants are aged 25-69 because a wide-range age group will explore a range of issues acting as barriers to higher education among African American women in the college regardless the age.


This qualitative research study will examine cultural, economic, spiritual, and social barriers that African American women face in obtaining higher education and will also explore PGCC’s policies designed to mitigate/minimize educational barriers to success. The study will utilize the phenomenological approach to questions and explore the range of barriers experienced by the African American women who have made their way into the community college. What did it take for them to get here?

African American women routinely experience problems and face challenges in clearing a path to higher education. According to recent statistics, college enrollment among African American women increased by more than 48% in 2012, compared to the data for 2002 (Garibaldi, 2014, p. 375). However, these positive changes in the enrollment rate are also correlated with the appearance of more cultural, economic, spiritual, and social barriers against achieving success (Charleston, 2012, p. 223; Cobb-Roberts & Agosto, 2012, p. 8).

The research argues that the main barriers faced by African American women are challenges of inclusion, bias associated with affirmative action, isolation, lack of support, stereotyping, and victimization (Lutz, Hassouneh, Akeroyd, & Beckett, 2013, p. 128; Maton, Wimms, Grant, & Wittig, 2011, p. 69). The challenges of inclusion and stereotyping are associated with the perception among African American women that becoming part of the college community and interacting effectively with other students will be difficult, if not impossible (Maton et al., 2011, p. 69). Cobb-Roberts and Agosto even speak about “racism and sexism” as well as an important “role of White supremacy and male dominance” in academic settings (Cobb-Roberts & Agosto, 2012, p. 9).

General student bias against affirmative action also influences the experience of African American women in colleges. The results of such attitudes and reactions create real isolation of African American women from others on the campus and in the classroom, and can even lead to victimization from other students’ aggressive actions, harassment, and bullying.

As a result, African Americans often choose to avoid these barriers to participation and engagement and give up their hopes of receiving higher education; the outcomes of such decisions are reflected in state and national employment statistics.

Various research argues the institutional policies and processes in many community colleges tolerate and excuse various types of negative, shaming, and biased behaviors throughout campus life, including a lack of support from mentors, college administrators, and faculty in the colleges (Lutz et al., 2013; Maton et al., 2011). Negative experiences include “lack of family and peer-support for college-going behaviors; experiences of alienation, discrimination, and prejudice on campus; pressures involved in biculturation; difficulty making connections with mentors and academic peers; and institutional policies which fail to promote an inclusive atmosphere” (Maton et al., 2011, p. 68).

Therefore, both sides of these challenges, the personal and the institutional, will be explored in this research.

Contribution to Society

How does the project improve a current practice?

Since this study will explore cultural, economic, and social barriers to higher education among African American women, the outcomes will provide the foundation for improving current practices observed in community colleges that foster stereotypes, conflict, and practices that do not support inclusion and full integration into college campus life, both socially and academically.

The study will explore both sides of the question: what possible barriers to achievement do African American females’ bring to the community college environment and what barriers may be functioning covertly or overtly on campus to reinforce the perception that Black women are treated as an outsider, unworthy of academic achievement and success?

Furthermore, this study will focus on real actions and collaborations that can be forged between African American women and college administrators and faculty to generate less difficult social relationships and enforce rules of engagement and conduct that promote principles of equality, respect, and community.

In order to inform current educational policies and practices and understand the cultural perceptions that make the college experience a challenge for African American women, this research proposes to use Prince George’s Community College as a window into how the personal, cultural, and educational perceptions of higher education interact.

Looking at the challenge from the women’s point of view will bring a new perspective to the research that uses employment, graduation, and written policy to assess the success or failure of higher education among urban minority populations.

The analysis of the African American women’s perceptions of and interaction with policy and practices in the community college will be important information in formulating more systemic and holistic recommendations for potential improvements to both sides of the question.

Any observed barriers and prejudiced attitudes in the field of higher education can prevent African American women from obtaining their education and then from developing careers. The result is the unequal distribution of wealth and national resources among Whites and African Americans (Felder & Barker, 2013, p. 3; Paludi, 2014). In this context, educational institutions, and community colleges, in particular, should focus on analyzing the African American women’s experiences while working to obtain higher education (Maton et al., 2011, p. 69). The next stage is providing educational opportunities for African American women to mend the social equality imbalances in the community.

As a result, the project contributes to improving practices followed in community colleges in relation to the educational experience of African American women (Iloh & Toldson, 2013).

How could the project impact your field of interest?

When completed successfully, this action research will provide the series of steps necessary to improve the experience of African American women in community colleges while preventing possible barriers and challenges.

The action research needs to be conducted in this sphere because the local issues are representative of national-level structural issues that impede African American women’s educational attainment, and it requires concrete actions to be proposed. It is necessary to attract the public and educational authorities’ attention to the issue of educational barriers to higher learning for African American females.

The challenges and solutions will be more effectively addressed at the local level of community colleges in a collaborative way. The reason is that the population in community colleges is usually racially, culturally, and socially diverse. According to Smith, community colleges represent the unique pattern of diversity in society, and aspects of inequality, any barriers for young people, and approaches to overcome them should be studied referring to these educational settings (Smith, 2013).

This research expects to propose changes in social support for student success among African American women on a particular community college campus and influence the work of Prince George’s Community College, the Prince George’s Community College Foundation, and the Social Services Organization of Largo to consider more systemic change. Each college follows its own policy to guarantee the provision of equal opportunities for the student population within the educational settings, but certain actions can provoke negative reactions of students and barriers for African American females, and they need to be identified (McCoy, 2014).

The offered improvements should be appropriate for further application in Prince George Community College and other community colleges as a plan to overcome barriers for African American females. The changes in the educational institutions’ policies are necessary because community colleges play “an instrumental role in shaping access, equity, and educational outcomes for Black students in contemporary American higher education” (Iloh & Toldson, 2013, p. 205). The considered changes may include improvement of procedures to receive the social support and social counseling for African American females to guarantee the students’ adaptation and inclusion (Garibaldi, 2014; Lutz et al., 2013).

What are the practical implications of the project?

In terms of practical implications, this research can provide a template for advocacy focused on current community college practices. As a result of analyzing African American women’s individual experience in the field of higher education, a series of steps can be proposed to improve the approaches followed in Prince George Community College. The recommendations will be formulated after examining the current situation in the community college with references to the data on the barriers for African American women.

Using the data gathered from the study, it will be possible to generate efficient recommendations to address the identified barriers and challenges faced by African American women in community colleges. It is significant to focus on the college’s practice associated with creating groups of social support in educational institutions, implementing social counseling programs, and promoting inclusion and collaboration (Gardner & Pearson, 2014). Research indicates that community colleges usually provide significant social support for students from different cultural backgrounds (Maton et al., 2011; Smith, 2013).

Need and Evidence to Make Change

The goal of the current action research project is to study the African American women’s challenges and barriers associated with higher education while focusing on the females’ experience in Prince George Community College.

Therefore, the first step in the process of developing valid research is the assessment of those women’s needs in a typical community college setting. Although the sample for the research may be small, it can provide preliminary data on the women’s actual lived experience and personal views on educational barriers. This assessment of African American women’s needs is critical in understanding educational barriers and what it means for these women to feel like being a part of an educational community.

The study is designed to reflect the African American women’s personal life choices and experiences in higher education. This will provide new information on educational challenges typical for this population and barriers preventing African American women from performing successfully as learners. The other research question to be explored is the attitudes of African American women toward the experienced challenges and the orientation to take action or ask for support (Garibaldi, 2014).

Qualitative analysis allows an in-depth understanding of the research subject. One of the most useful qualitative techniques is interviewing. In qualitative research, the theory suggests “that social reality is constructed, and it is constructed, differently by different individuals” (Gall et al., 1996, p.19). The phenomenological methodology will be applied to this research, and the main instruments used to collect the necessary data are the focus groups, interviews, and observations (Creswell, 2007, p. 112). The advantages of such research are the opportunity to compare the subjective and objective data; the opportunity to focus on the individuals’ perception of barriers and prioritized challenges; the opportunity to identify relationships between barriers and the individuals’ attitudes (Creswell, 2007).

Theoretical Foundation

The importance of the current action research is associated with the opportunity to identify not only barriers but also factors connected with higher education and concentrate on the target audience’s perceptions of the problem in order to choose the most effective strategies to address the issue. In this context, the theoretical base for this action research is Critical Race Theory, Social Learning Theory, and the Phenomenological approach.

Critical Race Theory

Critical Race Theory, formulated by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic in 2001, studies the relationship between the concept of race and its discussion in the social and legal environments (Heilig, Brown, & Brown, 2012, p. 408-409).

In this context, the use of Critical Race Theory is appropriate to explore and explain racial discrimination in the educational sector today, what role civil rights legislation can have to influence the situation from the legal perspective, and how racial differentiation can impact the educational experiences of persons having different ethnic and cultural backgrounds (Ledesma & Calderon, 2015, p. 208).

The barriers faced by the African American women in the sphere of higher education can be studied with references to Critical Race Theory because it is effective to explain why certain races can experience different types of problems in various social and legal spheres (Heilig et al., 2012, p. 408-409). In the institutional setting, Critical Race Theory can explain the factors associated with barriers faced by African American women in educational organizations because of their race and possible institutional bias.

Social Learning Theory

Social Learning Theory was formulated by Albert Bandura in the 1970s, and it discusses learning as the interactive process that is highly affected by the social relations, and models made perceived and followed as a result of observation (Hinshaw, Burden, & Shriner, 2012 p. 875). Thus, “modeling is essential to learning in the Social Learning Theory and is described as a process that occurs on four levels: Attention, Retention, Reproduction and Motivation” (Hinshaw et al., 2012 p. 875).

This theory is effective in explaining the aspects of the persons’ socialization in different settings (Dinther, Dochy, & Segers, 2011, p. 97). While applying this theory to the problem of African American women’s higher learning, it is important to state that the theory provides a range of perspectives from which it is possible to explain the barriers experienced by the women. The individual perception of observed barriers depends on the previous learning of models typical for the educational institutions. In this context, the behavior of persons who choose to discriminate against African American women depends on the previously learned models and patterns of behavior.

Phenomenological Approach

The Phenomenological approach is actively used by sociologists, psychologists, and other specialists who intend to conduct the qualitative research study and to examine the perceptions and opinions of individuals on concrete social situations or phenomena (McCoy, 2014, p. 157).

In the context of studying the barriers faced by the African American women in higher education, it is important to focus on the individuals’ opinions and life experiences that can serve as the basis to understand what important problems exist in the sphere (McCoy, 2014, p. 157). The phenomenological research assumes the use of interviews and focuses groups in order to examine the required subjective information (Felder & Barker, 2013, p. 4). Therefore, this approach is important to be utilized in the current action research.

Researcher Positionality

Outsider collaboration with insiders: The researcher is familiar with the field but has no previous or current affiliation with the selected site. A site unfamiliar to the researcher has been selected to eliminate any potential bias. Additionally, researching one group allowed for a more focused research study. The participants that will be interviewed as a part of the research process will be unacquainted with the researcher.

Research Questions and Project Goals/Objectives

The researcher will seek to answer one primary research question with three sub-questions:

What are the common and individual barriers that African-American women faced in obtaining higher education in this setting, and how did they overcome them?

Secondary questions

  • RQ1: Has the African American woman encountered barriers and biases that discouraged them from seeking higher education?
  • RQ2: How did the African American women’s community, family, and spirituality play a role in their decision to go to college?
  • RQ3: Were there people in the community or college who served as a mentor or assisted you in reaching your goals in higher education?
  • RQ4: What strategies did African American women use to overcome these obstacles?

Action Plan

Stringer (2013) Action Research Interacting Spiral model addresses real-life problems and promotes change:

  1. Find an appropriate site.
  2. Receive a research plan approval from the appropriate site.
  3. Submit Smart Form to the mentor for review and approval.
  4. Complete Smart Form for Committee approval.
  5. Gain IRB approval.
  6. Gather and compile a literature review.
  7. Maintain communication with the mentor.
  8. Receive PBCC IRB permission to perform research on the PBCC campus.
  9. Recruit participants to interview.
  10. Conduct interviews. All interviews will be completed by the researcher, recorded, and conducted on-site.
  11. Interviews will be transcribed.
  12. Complete the data analysis
  13. Share findings, best practices, and recommendations with the research participants, Prince George’s Community College administration, and PGCC IRB team with the help of meetings and distributed report and visual materials.
  14. Complete the dissertation process.
  15. Write the article summarizing the overall findings of the study.
  16. Maintain the raw interview data. Confidentiality will be addressed through labeling respondents and their answers with numbers (Student 1).


The results of the study will be presented to the PGCC administration and students at a series of separate meetings for administration and students, the duration of which is planned to be one to two hours. The participants of the meetings will be provided with a brochure disseminating the study results, and the researcher will represent the results in the form of a speech supported with the PowerPoint Presentation.

Measures and Instruments

Planning for and conducting a phenomenological study requires many steps, and the first step is to layout the objective of the study. After the researcher makes the determination of how they will develop their interview questions, they will decide on the mode of data collection (e.g., mail, telephone, or in-person). Data collection is imperative to the effectiveness and efficiency of any study (O’Sullivan, Rassel, & Berner, 2008).

The questions for the interview will be rather broad and focus on the experiences of African American women in PGCC and on the possibility of barriers they can face in obtaining higher education.

Possible questions:

  1. How can you describe your experiences in PGCC?
  2. Are you satisfied with your social life and academic successes?
  3. Have you friends in PGCC?
  4. How can you describe the attitude of instructors in PGCC to you?

Test that may be required for any instruments

The qualitative analysis allows for an in-depth understanding of the research subject. One of the most useful qualitative techniques is interviewing (Gall et al., 1996, p.19). For the purpose of this qualitative study, a series of individual interviews will be conducted. No instrument modification will be utilized.


In the research study, certain assumptions will be considered for its effective outcome. Basing on the current literature, the first assumption is that, while obtaining higher education, African American women face certain barriers and challenges associated with race and gender prejudice, and possible discrimination (Paludi, 2014). Another assumption is that participants will be honest when participating in an interview and reflecting on their experiences and visions. It is assumed that political, social, as well as educational factors can contribute to such occurrences in modern society (Hall, 2008).


The research study has certain limitations that can restrict the research effectiveness to a certain extent. Thus, the major limitation of the study shall be identified with regard to the respondents and their willingness to answer interview questions. Other limitations are time and biases when participants respond to the questions (Leedy & Ormrod, 2010). Moreover, although the study sample will be small, allowing in-depth exploration of the issues, it is important to focus on overcoming the researcher’s bias while interpreting the results of the interview.

Population and Sampling

Sampling involves selecting units for study from a population, with a particular emphasis on authentic representation. This means that the sample chosen for a project should have the characteristics that closely and truthfully represent the population from which it is drawn (Singh, 2007).

According to Creswell, it is best to use a smaller sample population when using a qualitative research method because this will increase the understanding of the studied participants (Creswell, 2009). The sample considered will be based on a simple self-selected sampling technique, where individuals will have equal possibilities to participate in the research, depending on their willingness and readiness to be interviewed. The inclusion criteria for sample respondents inform that the respondents must be African American women. On the other hand, the exclusion criteria are that the sample respondents must be above 18 years old (Oulte, 2012).

Therefore, the sample will be drawn from African American women who are willing and voluntarily agree to participate in the project. A flyer will be utilized to recruit participants and posted throughout the campus.

Sample Size

A sampling strategy consists of the techniques and processes that a researcher employs in order to capture the most salient characteristics of the population and mirror them in the sample (Marshall, 1996).

Merriam (2009, p.80) states that the sample size of a qualitative study “depends on the questions being asked, the data being gathered, the analysis in progress, and the resources you have to support your study.” For this research project, it is believed that 20-30 interviewees will be enough to generate the core themes related to the women’s educational experiences. It is expected to invite 30 participants, and the minimum expected number of participants is 20 because of possible rejections to participate in the project.

Expected Site

Prince George’s Community College is located in the community of Largo in Prince George’s County, Maryland. The college has served since 1958 “a diverse population of more than 44,000 students” from over 103 different countries (Prince George’s Community College, 2015).

In the college, “student success is the highest priority” (Prince George’s Community College, 2015). The college promotes “opportunities for students to succeed inside and outside of the classroom” (Prince George’s Community College, 2015). Prince George’s Community College “was recently named a National Center of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance Two-year Education 2010–2015 by the National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security” (Prince George’s Community College, 2015).

Site Permission

Prince George’s Community College requires any research “involving human participants will be reviewed by the Prince George’s Community College (PGCC) Institutional Review Board (IRB)” (Prince George’s Community College, 2015). The Principal Investigator is “responsible for ensuring” that they obtain consent from those participants in the research (Prince George’s Community College, 2015). The researcher has ethical responsibilities to ensure that potential participants have a clear understanding of the research project prior to participating and that the data and identities of all participants are kept confidential and private through providing labels to the data.

Participant Contact

The participants will be contacted through the student center at Prince George’s Community College, break room, and any available specific bulletin board. Contact numbers and email address will be taken from such sources and kept confidential and private. Participants who request the follow-up information regarding the study will be contacted via email or a focus group discussion with other participants on campus.

Data Analysis

The qualitative analysis is utilized to obtain specific information about the values, points of view, behaviors, and social contexts of particular populations (O’Sullivan, 2008). Creswell (2007) discusses the importance of analyzing research data. It is significant for researchers to have a clear understanding of the different approaches available for collecting information and data. Performing research using human subjects must understand that it is a benefit, not a right, and they must treat their subjects with respect and dignity throughout the process.

According to Wiemer and Vining (2011), collecting data for policy analysis is divided into two broad categories: document research and field research. Document research involves primary documents and secondary documents. The method of conducting field research includes gathering information that is already known about the topic and supplementing data through interviews.

For the effective completion of the study, data analysis is highly important. All participants’ interviews will be recorded and transcribed for further analysis and identification of themes in the narratives that are relevant to explain the character of African American women’s experiences in Prince George’s Community College.


  1. The transcribed audio recordings will be read for the first time and make necessary labels regarding the respondents to make them anonymous.
  2. The transcripts will be read for the second time to make notes and divide the data into categories according to the themes.
  3. Determined categories of data and themes will be grouped and schematically organized for further analysis.
  4. Determined themes associated with experiences or barriers will be analyzed and interpreted.

Ethical Considerations

In the research study, the due significance will be delivered on preserving the personal data of the respondents. The questions will also be prepared in a manner that does not personally affect the respondents. Moreover, the data collection process will start with taking the informed consent from the respondents, and it will be based on the principles of free will participation (Johnson & Christensen, 2010).

Interviews will be conducted and audio-taped. All interview audios recordings will be transcribed. Ethical issues are present in any research. Ethics is not about doing the right thing but deciding what to do. The central issues in today’s rapidly changing and the global world are ethics. Ethics, according to Thiroux and Krasemann, continues to be one of the most important “human endeavors,” and the two major theories of ethics are non-consequentialist and consequentialist (Thiroux & Krasemann, 2012).

Risk Assessment

The researcher has a responsibility to protect the participants of the project. This study represents a minimal amount of risk. All of the participants will be at least 18 years old and higher. They will sign a consent form as a part of the consent process; the participants will be fully informed of the confidentialit