Nontraditional Students' Perspectives on College Education: A Qualitative Study

Article excerpt

This study explored nontraditional college students' perspectives on their college education. Forty-three undergraduate students with an average age of 38 years completed 60-minute structured interviews. Qualitative research methodology based on grounded theory was used in data synthesis. Results identified the central concept of hopefulness, which interacted with 5 other themes: (a) motivation, (b) financial investment, (c) career development, (d) life transition, and (e) support systems. Implications for counseling practice and future research are discussed.

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The number of college students age 25 years and older has grown from fewer than 4 million in 1980 to more than 6 million in 2000. Nontraditional students now make up more than 40% of the total U.S. under-graduate population (National Center for Education Statistics, 1997; U.S. Census Bureau, 2001). Despite this rapid growth, few scholars have given nontraditional students much attention. The little research that has been done has focused primarily on variables related to academic attainment, comparing traditional college students with nontraditional students in terms of their motivations, aptitudes (Kasworm, 1990), learning processes (Smith & Pourchot, 1998), and classroom instruction and learning styles (Justice & Dornan, 2001). Unfortunately, this limited research provides an unclear picture of nontraditional students. For example, nontraditional students have been found to perform similarly to their traditional counterparts across several areas (Graham, 1998) and to perform equal to or better than their traditional counterparts based on grades and aptitude/content test results (Kasworm, 1990), yet they have also been found to lack confidence (Cupp, 1991).

Very little research has investigated the counseling needs of nontraditional students. In fact, the profession has not yet clearly identified the reasons that non-traditional students return to college nor adequately described their perspectives of the college experience (Justice & Dornan, 2001; Kroth & Boverie, 2000). Such information would be useful for counseling professionals to better meet the needs of nontraditional students, who frequently balance course work, employment, and family life as they create new vocational goals and cope with major life transitions. Just as counselors work to provide services that are appropriate for diverse client populations, such as people from different cultural backgrounds, they also need to recognize nontraditional students' issues that set them apart from traditional-age students.

To better understand the counseling needs of nontraditional students, researchers and counselors should begin by listening to students' firsthand experiences. Accurate knowledge of nontraditional students' issues can enable counselors to effectively advocate for them, making professional services more relevant to their specific needs in personal, vocational, and educational areas. For this and other reasons, Luzzo (1999) has suggested that qualitative research is required to more intimately understand nontraditional students and their complex life roles across family, school, and the workplace.

Therefore, to extend earlier research and to provide practical suggestions for counselors, a qualitative examination of nontraditional students' experiences was conducted using grounded theory methodology. According to Strauss and Corbin (1998), grounded theory is "derived from data, systematically gathered and analyzed through the research process ... theory emerge from data" (p. 12). Using this methodology, the current study explored nontraditional students' reasons for pursuing college education and how college education affects them, their support systems, and their career goals.

Method

Participants and Procedure

Participants were 43 nontraditional-age undergraduate students (23 women and 20 men) at a large public university and a moderate-size private college in the Midwest. …