In 1999-2000, 7.1 million adults age 24 or older constituted 43% of all undergraduates in U.S. institutions of higher education, compared to 5.73 million adult students enrolled a decade earlier (1989-1990). When defined as people 25 and older, adult students constituted 27% of all undergraduates in 1979-1980 (National Center for Educational Statistics [NCES], 1995, 2000). The growing proportion of adult undergraduates has become a significant source of enrollment and income for numerous institutions for which the proportion of "traditional age" students (typically defined as between 18 to 22 years of age) is shrinking.
The growth of adult participation in U.S. higher education has occurred in the context of other changes within higher education. Higher education has become much more market oriented (Bok, 2003), with adult students one market among several that need to be tapped for higher education institutions to remain competitive and relevant within the current social, political, and economic milieu (Zemsky, 1998). Additionally, the development of alternate delivery mechanisms such as distance education (Moore & Anderson, 2003) and accelerated programs (Donaldson & Graham, 2002) has helped overcome the constraints of time and location that adults often face in their learning, contributing to their increased enrollment. Tremendous growth in for-profit higher education has also occurred because it taps into the income stream that the growing adult student market represents (Sperling & Tucker, 1997).
Despite these shifts in higher education practice, scholars have paid little attention to adult students' presence and their impact upon nonprofit higher education. Several studies have documented the lack of attention to adult students in U.S. higher education research. In 1998, Pascarella and Terenzini noted the lack of focus on adult students, a lack that they labeled a "substantial" bias (p. 152) in higher education research. They reiterated the lack of attention to the development of adult undergraduates in their 2005 update of research on the impact of college on undergraduates. Kasworm, Sandmann, and Sissel (2000) observed that the lack of full and equitable treatment in research marginalizes adults in higher education, as does a similar lack of equitable treatment in public policy, institutional programming, and development of institutional mission. In a related vein, Quinnan (1997) noted that research on adult undergraduate students has differed little over the past several decades. The same research questions appear to be addressed repeatedly at different institutions and with similar research protocols (Quinnan, 1997). Typical questions focus on comparison between adult and traditional-age undergraduates. For example, do adult students do as well academically? Do they have different needs?
Given claims about the lack of research on adult undergraduates and the repetitive nature of the existing research, as well as the lack of a current in-depth analysis about how adult students are portrayed in the higher education literature, we chose to use content analysis to examine seven refereed higher education journals published between 1990 and 2003 to determine how adult undergraduate students were treated in their articles. The purpose of the study was twofold: to determine the frequency with which adult students appeared in selected journals of higher education as a topic of research, and to examine how the scholarly discourse in the journals portrayed these adult students.
As Gumport has noted, "the language used to talk about higher education is important, for it not only reflects our thinking but also contributes to a construction of reality" (2001, p. 92). A structured analysis of this language reflects the perspective that discourse is "never neutral. Some elements are included and legitimatized; others are excluded" (Boshier, 1992, p. …