Academic journal article Adultspan Journal

Rethinking Adult Learner Persistence: Implications for Counselors

Academic journal article Adultspan Journal

Rethinking Adult Learner Persistence: Implications for Counselors

Article excerpt

The authors examined adult learner persistence in higher education by exploring student perspectives regarding the obstacles that blocked their attendance and the motivators that contributed to their tenacity in pursuing their academic goals over a period of time. Results suggest implications for counselors who work with adult learners in colleges and universities.


Adult learners constitute a significant percentage of all students enrolled in higher education. Five out of six college students are now part-time, commuting adults who juggle academic commitments with work and family obligations (Levine & Cureton, 1998). Although the term adult learner has been defined in a variety of ways, most researchers include in this diverse group any student who has experienced at least one of the following: being a parent, working, attending college part-time, being a high school dropout, or delaying college enrollment for at least 1 year. According to U.S. Department of Education data (Horn, Peter, & Rooney, 2002), 75% of college students meet one or more of these criteria. Most adult learners also cycle in and out of college, attending multiple institutions. Sixty percent of all undergraduates now attend one or more colleges during their academic careers (Adelman, 1999). Despite the odds against completing a degree when any of these factors are present (Horn et al., 2002), many ad ult learners persist in eventually achieving their academic goals.


Counselors' developmental focus makes them uniquely suited to assist adults facing multiple stressors as they cycle through educational programs at varying points across the life span. For counselors to provide effective counseling services for adults, they need an understanding of the motivators that contribute to student persistence as well as the barriers that impede continued enrollment in higher education. In the paragraphs that follow, we provide an overview of existing persistence models and describe adult learner characteristics as they relate to persistence. We then present a study that examines adult learner perspectives regarding motivators and barriers to persistence and describe the implications of these findings for counselors.


Most researchers have focused on persistence in traditional students, excluding the experiences of adult learners (Donaldson & Graham, 1999). Widely accepted models of student persistence describe the concept in terms of student retention and outcomes (Donaldson & Graham, 1999). Bean (1990) and Tinto (1993) argued that persistence is strongly related to a student's commitment to a college or university; This commitment is primarily influenced through his or her integration into the campus community. Tinto's model specifically described the process of student integration and institutional commitment: On enrollment, certain student background variables (e.g., family background, individual attributes, and pre-college academic experiences), coupled with the student's initial commitment to the institution, are subsequently modified by the extent to which he or she becomes socially integrated into campus communities. This integration then influences the student's overall level of commitment to an institution (Tinto , 1997). Braxton, Milem, and Sullivan (2000) added that active learning practices in the classroom directly influence student integration, thus contributing to student persistence.

Authors have recently identified ways in which adult learner persistence may differ from traditional definitions and have noted a lack of research that guides our understanding of persistence patterns in this significant student population (Donaldson & Graham, 1999; Naretto, 1995). One issue emphasized in the literature relates to adult learners' academic expectations and demands on their time and energy; Adult learners may enroll in college as a result of a significant life event or of a reevaluation of their life goals (Justice & Dornan, 2001). …

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