Adult Graduate Students in Higher Education: Refocusing the Research Agenda

By Kerns, Lorna | Adult Learning, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Adult Graduate Students in Higher Education: Refocusing the Research Agenda


Kerns, Lorna, Adult Learning


Adult students in higher education comprise a sizeable and expanding group of college and university students (Kasworm, Sandmann, & Sissel, 2000). While Sissel, Hansman, and Kasworm (2001) note the dearth of scholarship on adult learners in higher education, this same group of scholars and some of their colleagues have certainly produced a solid foundation of scholarly work on the needs and status of adults in higher education (e.g., Kasworm, 2003; Kasworm & Marienau, 1997; Sissel, Hansman, & Kasworm, 2001).

There is a tendency, however, when the subject is the distinctive needs and characteristics of adult learners in higher education to focus on the adult undergraduate as opposed to the adult graduate student. For example, when Donaldson (2007; 2006) and his colleagues examined both the higher education literature and the adult education literature for themes in the discourse about adult learners, they focused exclusively on adult undergraduates. Not only is there more explicit representation of adult undergraduates in the literature, many articles in both the adult education literature and the higher education literature tacitly index adult undergraduates when they discuss adult learners in higher education. Posing the question of who counts as an important client in higher education, Kasworm, Sandmann, and Sissel (2000) have declared that "... undergraduate degree seekers, credential-seeking students, and graduate students are frequently blurred in the dialogue about adults as learners in the academy" (p. 453).

There exists a need in both the adult and higher education literature to recognize adult, mid-career master's degree students as a group with its own distinct identity. Although these students have much in common with adult undergraduates, there are important ways in which they diverge. Features common to both adult undergraduate and graduate students include:

* Assumption of adult roles, relationships, and responsibilities

* Likelihood of employment

* Greater and more diverse experience than traditionally aged undergraduates

* Less time available for academic work than traditionally aged undergraduates

Characteristics that define adult graduate students but do not apply to adult undergraduates include:

* Possession of a Bachelor's Degree

* Familiarity with the culture and mastery of the demands of the higher education environment

* Sharpened focus on a professional field and subject matter

* Shortened time frame for completion

Although the existence of common features supports a research strategy that combines the two groups, the presence of the divergent features argue for the use of special approaches to studying each group and suggests the need for research that would compare the two groups. An example of a study that is more appropriately targeted to one than the other is that of Ross-Gordon (2003) who describes the anxiety and lack of self-confidence reported by many adult undergraduates upon beginning their course of study. To generalize this finding to adult master's degree students would be a mistake, given the experience that such students have already gained in the context of higher education.

Another example of a topic for which the two groups should be differentiated rather than combined is attrition. There are certainly factors from the list of common features, e.g., the demands of work and family responsibilities that may contribute to an adult student's decision to withdraw from a degree program. Completing an undergraduate degree program typically takes a much longer time than a master's degree program. The longer duration may be seen as a heavier burden on the adult undergraduate. On the other hand, for the adult graduate students who already possess a Bachelor's Degree, the intervention of a life crisis may make attrition more likely if the attainment of a graduate degree is seen as less necessary than that of the Bachelor's degree. …

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