Meeting the Special Needs of Adult Students

Meeting the Special Needs of Adult Students

Meeting the Special Needs of Adult Students

Meeting the Special Needs of Adult Students


In this volume, we examine the ways student services professionals in institutions of higher education can best meet the needs of adult learners. Most of the discussion here is situated in four-year colleges and universities, although we recognize that community colleges play a large role in the higher education of adults. However, we made the decision to focus on four-year and post-graduate institutions because we believe that these institutions often are focused on traditional-aged students despite growing adult enrollments, and are most in need of guidance about how to serve this ever-growing population. Students in higher education often are defined as "adult learners" or "non-traditional students" if they are 25 twenty-five years of age or older, and, more significantly, if they have taken on what we consider adult roles and responsibilities, such as caring for children and other family members, working full-time, or participating heavily in community activities. Adult students typically are not focused on campus life in the same way that younger, "traditional-aged" students are. Therefore, our theories of the importance of the campus experience outside the classroom to student development usually do not hold for adults. Yet, adults can and do learn and develop through their engagement in formal higher education. Adults bring experiences and wisdom into the classroom, and receive a learning experience that informs their own professional and personal practices. This is the 102nd issue of the quarterly journal New Directions for Student Services.


Who are adult learners in higher education, and how do
they differ from younger college students? In this chapter,
the author presents an overview of adult student
enrollment patterns, their participation motivators, and
their lifestyle differences from younger college students.

Who is an adult learner in higher education? Most would answer that all college students are adults, believing that the age of eighteen and above indicates adulthood. However, within higher education, historical patterns of adult student participation have been distinctive; beliefs about adult learner needs for specialized policies, services, and learning delivery structures have been unique; and relationships between the traditional youth environments and the needed access, flexibility, and support for adult learners have been problematic. In this chapter, I focus on the concept of the adult student as one who represents the status of age (typically defined as twenty-five years of age and older); the status of maturity and developmental complexity acquired through life responsibilities, perspectives, and financial independence; and the status of responsible and often-competing sets of adult roles reflecting work, family, community, and college student commitments. This chapter provides readers with national demographics, key frameworks for understanding participation motivators, and key descriptive differences between younger and older undergraduate students. As noted by the chapter title, this discussion provides an introductory context for understanding and serving adult student needs.

Place of Adult Students in Higher Education

Adult students in higher education represent a growing population in the shifting terrain of higher education. In the past thirty years, adult students have increased dramatically in both absolute number and in the percentage of the student population in relation to younger students. From 1971 to . . .

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