Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Adult Students in Higher Education: Burden or Boon?

Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Adult Students in Higher Education: Burden or Boon?

Article excerpt

Since the mid-1970s, universities in the United States have recruited substantial numbers of students from the older sections of the population. Indeed, during this period the proportion of so-called adult students (i.e., those who are over the age of 22 at the time of their entry into higher education) has equaled the proportion of so-called traditional students (i.e., those aged between 18 and 22 on entry) (e.g., Lenz & Shaevitz, 1977, p. 4). This influx of older students has been prompted by demographic, economic, and technological developments (see Merriam & Caffarella, 1991, chap. 1). A similar situation has arisen in Australia, where students aged 25 or over on admission are described as "mature-age" students (see Hore, 1992), and in the United Kingdom, where students aged 21 or over on admission to undergraduate courses and those aged 25 or over on admission to graduate programs are described as "mature students" (see Griffin, 1992, pp. 61-63). However, in the United Kingdom, this has been the result of changes in national government policy and funding arrangements.

As these examples illustrate, the definition of "adult" students is somewhat arbitrary and varies both within and across national systems of higher education (Hore, 1992). Solomon and Gordon (1981, p. 2) commented that some U.S. agencies classified all students aged 17 or older as "adults." In many countries, the legal age of adulthood for most purposes is 18 or younger; consequently, even traditional college students are, strictly speaking, adults. In addition, one should beware of treating "adult" students as a single homogeneous group. They are more diverse than younger students in their motivations, needs, expectations, and experiences of higher education (Britton 8,: Baxter, 1994; Hore, 1992; West & Eaton, 1980). An obvious contrast is between the experiences of men and women as adult students (e.g., De Groot, 1980; Maynard 8,: Pearsall, 1994), but there are also major differences between adult students at different stages of the life course (Britton & Baxter, 1994; Clennell, 1984, 1987; Thacker & Novak, 1991). Nevertheless, this article is concerned with challenging stereotypes that are applied generically to adult students.

As Marshall and Nicolson (1991) pointed out, discussions about the role of adult students in higher education tend to stress their supposed needs rather than the potential benefits they can bring (for examples in the U.S. literature, see Lenz & Shaevitz, 1977; Schlossberg, Lynch, & Chickering, 1989; Solomon & Gordon, 1981). In 1993 the American Psychological Association (APA) published a Handbook for Enhancing Undergraduate Education in Psychology (McGovern, 1993), and this contained a chapter by Ware et al. (1993) that included the following remarks with regard to developing and improving advising strategies for faculty:

There is a growing descriptive, and sometimes empirical, literature on the special needs and environments for adult students and the opportunities such environments provide for enhanced learning. . . .

One example of a specific need of adult learners includes adjusting after reentry into the academic environment. Adult students often must confront issues of balancing family and career demands. Some women who reenter the academic scene have to consider the prospect of taking low-paying jobs in clerical or social services areas. Traditional advising strategies can handle some, but not all, of the special needs of such students. . . .

Adult students confront somewhat novel problems in adjusting to a traditional academic setting. They express fears about competing and fitting in with 18-22-year-old students. They question their ability to understand and retain large quantities of information. Although they may be effective problem solvers for many life demands, adult learners may exhibit fewer skills for coping with an academic environment.

Identifying and discussing reentry concerns can facilitate the reduction of such fears. …

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