Academic journal article Community College Review

Involvement, Development, and Retention: Theoretical Foundations and Potential Extensions for Adult Community College Students

Academic journal article Community College Review

Involvement, Development, and Retention: Theoretical Foundations and Potential Extensions for Adult Community College Students

Article excerpt

The aim of this article is to orient those interested in adult community college student research to a wide array of discourses and theoretical tools that can help us understand the underlying complexity of the problems faced by this often-marginalized group. Reviewed are categories of theory about student involvement and engagement, student development, and adult learning that should inform how we educate adult community college students. This article concludes with a discussion of how all these theories, taken together, can improve adult education in community colleges.

Keywords: adult learning; student retention; identity development, relational learning; experiential learning

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Many adult students--defined here as students 24 or older--attending community college for the first time are inadequately prepared, both academically and socially, for college-level learning (Howell, 2001). As a consequence, many of these students do not persist, and thus community colleges experience high levels of student attrition. This situation is an especially important challenge for adult educators in light of the fact that 43% of all community college students are older than the age of 24 (U.S. Department of Education, 2005). We must have a basic understanding about the importance of academic and social integration on campus for all college students; adult students are no exception. In addition, defining what can constitute involvement activities for college students in the classroom, in particular, is crucial for establishing a legitimate space for operationalizing curricula that are appropriate for adult students.

For many years, scholars and practitioners have worked to develop retention strategies for other types of community college students, including first-generation, minority, and underprepared students. However, few have examined adult student retention in a comprehensive way, taking into account the myriad sociological, biological, and psychological changes that occur as one grows older (Merriam & Caffarella, 1999). Indeed, as Ryan (2003) has argued, adult community college students face unique challenges and require new forms of academic and institutional support.

The vast majority of research on student retention has been situated in 4-year institutions of higher education that typically enroll White, residential, and traditional-age students (Crawford, 1999; Rendon, 1994). Furthermore, adult students are frequently ignored in scholarship pertaining to community college retention. To better understand this large and growing group of community college students, educators must begin to look at existing literature on adult learners in relation to theories of student development and retention. In doing so, we can begin to understand more about the unique problems adult students face related to identity development, students' sense of mattering and validation, gender differentiation, and the central effects of one's cultural background. These factors ultimately coalesce to influence, positively or negatively, an adult student's ability to persist in college and reach his or her educational goals. In this article, I discuss several theories that can inform the way we educate adults in community colleges. Reviewed are categories of theory about student involvement and engagement, student development, and adult learning that should inform how we educate adult community college students. The article concludes with a discussion of how all these theories, taken together, can improve adult education in community colleges.

First, as Sanford (1966) pointed out, it is essential to consider adult students' level of precollege readiness, challenges in college, and the support mechanisms necessary for academic success. Next, to preempt the sense of marginalization that many adult students experience during the early stages of college, administrators and adult educators must recognize that adults' presence and contributions actually matter to the institution's success (Schlossberg, 1989). …

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