Date of Award

Spring 2020

Document Type

Open Access Dissertation


Educational Leadership and Policies

First Advisor

Christian K. Anderson


Female nontraditional students are returning to undergraduate studies in increasing numbers. Limited research has been conducted about how female nontraditional undergraduate students enrolled in public four-year research institutions perceive their educational experience. This qualitative interview study describes the lived experiences of female nontraditional students enrolled in undergraduate studies at one four-year public research institution located in the southeastern United States. The phenomenological design captures the distinct personal experiences of the study’s participants within the study site and helps to answer to the study’s overarching research focus: How do female nontraditional undergraduate students perceive their experiences at a public four-year research institution and the institutional initiatives designed to attract and retain them? Thirteen female nontraditional undergraduate students’ responses to the research questions provide a deeper understanding of the phenomena from the participants’ perspectives. Strayhorn’s Sense of Belonging provides a conceptual framework for analyzing how female nontraditional students approach and adapt to the enrollment in undergraduate studies at a public four-year research institution of higher education. A thematic analysis of the interview data reveals three major themes that the college-going experience is a complicated process for female nontraditional students, that the campus experience matters to female nontraditional students, and that institutional support in both academic and social belongingness areas is key to the satisfaction and ultimate completion of degree among female nontraditional students. The findings from this study can encourage conversations on public four-year campuses directed toward improving how institutions assess, develop, and implement programs and services to influence academic success among female nontraditional undergraduate students. These findings are significant for universities similar to the study site and for researchers who want to understand female nontraditional students across institutional types. Recommendations for educational practice focus on the development, availability, and accessibility of programs and services to encourage retention and academic degree completion among female nontraditional undergraduate students.