'Survival skills' for women going back to school; Happier by Degrees, by Pam Mendelsohn. New York: E. P. Dutton. $7.95 paperback; Are You Ready? A Survival Manual for Women Returning to school, by Anna Mae Walsh Burke. Englewood Cliffs, N. J: Prentice-Hall Inc. $4.95 paperback.

Women are going back to school. Forty percent of today's college students are over the age of 25, and a large portion of them are women. The number of older women who enrolled in college or graduate programs doubled between 1972 and 1977. Between 1976 and 1977 the number of women going back increased by 23 percent.

Some of these women never went to college. Others dropped out for marriage, a job, or because of grades. Some are college graduates who seek advanced degrees after years on the job with little or no advancement.Some seek a career for the first time. A few want enrichment or stimulation.

They include mothers whose children have finished school and mothers whose children are just starting school. Some are married. Some are widowed, divorced, or never married.

They are a diverse group -- and a determined group. but many have been out of the educational system for years while raising a family. And it's not always easy to know the rules, shortcuts, strategies, and resources that are available on college and university campuses. Both "Happier by Degrees" and "Are You Ready?" seek to help these women.

Pam Mendelsohn, the author of "Happier by Degrees," went back to school for a graduate degree ten years after she graduated from college. She had a two-year-old daughter and no recent experience in dealing with admissions people , financial aid, faculty, and college parking lots. Although she made it through the "bewildering" processing, Ms. Mendelsohn found that other returning women had faced the same problems she had -- and hadn't been able to find resources to deal with them. She decided to write a book aimed at that audience.

It hits the mark. "Happier by Degrees" is a cheery and friendly book that also happens to be informative and practical. Ms. Mendelsohn sprinkles through research with advice and comments garnered from nearly 200 reentry women and their families.

The book goes step by step through some of the decisions and barriers women will face. It discusses questions about academic success, a student-mother's effect on family life, reactions of children and husbands, role-juggling, and on-campus relationships.

The book also goes over the options available to women returning to school. It points out differences between junior colleges, colleges, and universities. It describes how a woman might be able to get credit for life experience, or test out of requirements through a college level equivalency program exam. It also tells how to prepare for entrance requirements and lists possible sources of financial aid.

More practical advice is given in chapters on child care, study habits, and the kinds of support systems that may be available. The last two chapters look at the job hunt process.

Ms. Mendelsohn's book is like a comfy conversation with a friend who has already gone through the experience of returning to school. The book doesn't assume that all women going back for degrees are "superwomen" filled with ambition and resolve. Nor does it assume that all women have a family willing to take care of the house while she is in school.

Instead, the author counsels women to make the reentry process gradual. Establish a support system of women in the same situation. Realize it's not that important to be a straight-A student. Take at least one course "for fun" each quarter.

In dealing with the transition families must make when mother goes back to school, Ms. Mendelsohn is realistic in her suggestions. Although she notes that the quality of time with children is much more important than the quantity of time, she does point out that children may have mixed feelings. Mothers should make sure that they have a special, inviolate time with their children each day.

It is also important for a married reentry woman to have time each day with her husband, Ms Mendelsohn says in a chapter on how husbands feel about a "student wife." The book notes that the husbands of returning women "will need to share in the responsibilities of running the household. Discuss the change in a nonaccusing way . . .' is a lot more productive than 'Why don't you ever. . . .'"

"Are You Ready?" is considerably less thorough. Child care, for example, rates less than four pages here, as opposed to a whole chapter in "Happier by Degrees." Author Anna Mae Walsh Burke, who has a doctorate in physics and is director of Nova College of Nova University, gives good information, but it is dry and not always detailed.

"Are You Ready?" does include some interesting ideas. In a chapter one how to find money to go back to school, the book mentions common solutions such as scholarships, grants, and part-time work. It also adds the idea of bartering, or trading talents for tuition. But in a characteristic lack of detail, Dr. Burke offers no examples of this good idea.

The book gives some attention to survival skills, such as how to improve reading, how to survive doing a paper, the art of taking a test, and how to use resource materials.

But the empathy running through "Happier by Degrees" is missing here. Even though Dr. Burke is described as a woman who "has lived through many of the problems faced by the working and/or studying mother," there is no click of recognition or familiarity in here writing. It reads more like a handout from the student affairs office.

Dr. Burke urges a woman to convince herself that what she is doing is right, almost without regard for her family. She says: "If you have some negative feelings toward your family and the desire to return to school stems in part time from these negative feelings, don't let your family know tham if you want their help. . . You are not looking for a solution to someone else's life. You are looking for creative answers for yourself."

Is is true that women (or men) should not snuff out their desire for education merely because someone else does not think it is right, but it is also true that a family is a cooperative venture. Although it is a woman's own decision whether to go back to school or not, her "creative solution" is going to affect the lives of others. Discuss the decision. Talk about what it will mean. Family communications will most likely be strengthened, and it is much easier to accomplish something with the backing of a family.

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