ERIC Identifier: ED308401
Publication Date: 1989-00-00
Author: Kerka, Sandra
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult
Career and Vocational Education Columbus OH.
Retaining Adult Students in Higher Education. ERIC Digest No.
The presence of adult students in higher education is no longer an emerging
trend but a reality. Retaining these students requires a change in perspective
among educators and administrators accustomed to dealing with the
traditional-age student population. "The concept of persistence or retention
must be thought of differently for adults" (Pappas and Loring 1985, p. 139).
Defining retention in terms of program (degree) completion is relevant only for
some. Adult students have diverse characteristics and life circumstances that
affect their participation in education. As they handle multiple roles and
responsibilities, the student role is often secondary. They have more and varied
past experiences, are more concerned with practical application, and have
greater self-determination and acceptance of responsibility (Schlossberg, Lynch,
and Chickering 1989).
This ERIC Digest reviews research on the factors affecting retention. The
relevance of some attrition models for adults is discussed. Strategies in two
areas are presented: helping adults adapt to the university and adapting the
university to adults.
FACTORS AFFECTING RETENTION
Participation and persistence
result from the interaction of a variety of student characteristics,
circumstances, and the educational environment. Because educators have limited
influence over the first two categories, perhaps a more effective way to improve
retention is to change the institution's perspective and attitude toward adults
as students. Schlossberg, Lynch, and Chickering (1989) claim that educational
institutions are "out of sync" with adult students (p. 8). They recommend that
educators and student services personnel adopt the attitude of Schoen's
reflective practitioner, changing the way they view adult learners and
Pappas and Loring (1985) categorize adult students as degree seekers, problem
solvers, and enrichment seekers. Although persistence is usually viewed
longitudinally, they suggest that this perspective applies only to degree
seekers. They propose a cross-sectional perspective that considers retention
successful if students achieve their objectives for participating. Murray and
Uhl (1988) suggest analyzing adult, nontraditional students' enrollment patterns
differently, including reentry points that take into account "stopping out"
(temporary withdrawal from school), short-term study, and similar adult
Several writers (Ackell 1982; Pappas and Loring 1985; Schlossberg et al.
1989; Tinto 1987) cite the marginality of adult programs in higher education.
Ackell identifies three approaches: the "laissez faire" stage involves no
organized services or efforts for adults; the "separatist" approach has a
clearly segregated adult or evening unit with low status, separate faculty, and
little integration with "regular" campus life; the "equity" stage includes
active recruitment of adults, appropriate delivery systems, integrated
curriculum and faculty, flexible services--in short, adult programs that are in
the mainstream of the institution.
RETENTION MODELS AND ADULT STUDENTS
Marginality is a
central concept of one of the primary models of student retention. Tinto's
(1987) theory emphasizes that important predictors of persistence are academic
integration (academic performance) and social integration (participation in
college life). Recently, researchers have begun to apply this model to adult,
nontraditional populations, with mixed results.
A national 9-year study (Stoecker, Pascarella, and Wolfle 1988) supports the
importance of the fit between the person and the college environment as a
retention factor. Weidman's (1985) results in applying Tinto's theory to female
welfare recipients in a community college suggest that for adults, the model
should also consider pressures external to the educational setting. Starks
(1987) proposes restructuring the model for returning women; she finds that, for
adults, it is more relevant to define academic integration as intellectual
development than good grades, and that social integration means contact with
fellow students, group work, and studying together more than participation in
Walleri and Peglow-Hoch (1988) cite a number of studies that found
inconsistencies in Tinto's model when applied to nontraditional populations,
suggesting that persistence is independent of integration into campus life. In
particular, Metzner and Bean (1987) find that nontraditional students do not
attend for socialization purposes; instead, their model shows dropout most
affected by grade point average, commitment as indicated by number of credit
hours taken, and utility to future employment. However, Walleri and Peglow-Hoch
propose that the inconsistencies are due to the diversity of adult students as
well as to the way student progress is tracked. Their investigation of a guided
studies program for academically underprepared adults indicates that successful
students had close relationships with faculty, access to counseling, shared
values and good relationships with other students, and specific career goals.
Perhaps the most relevant implications of these studies for retaining adults
are as follows: (1) recognize that the persistence of diverse groups is affected
by different factors and target retention efforts appropriately; (2) prior to or
after enrollment, help adults clarify their academic and career goals; and (3)
recognize that students' objectives are not necessarily degree oriented and
measure retention success accordingly.
HELPING ADULTS ADAPT TO THE UNIVERSITY
that affect persistence include role conflict, time management, family and work
problems, economics, and logistics. Adults facing such circumstantial barriers
need services that will enhance their academic adjustment by allowing them to
concentrate on the student role, such as (1) assistance with transportation and
child care (which Schlossberg et al.  recommend expanding to family care
for those responsible for both their children and their parents); (2)
alternatives to stopping out, such as independent study, correspondence courses,
contract learning; and (3) creative financial aid that might include flexible
payment plans and tuition reimbursement.
Psychological influences include coping skills, self-confidence and
self-image, anxiety about schooling based on prior experience, and beliefs or
expectations about outcomes. Solutions might be communication of accurate,
timely information stressing anticipated benefits and realistic expectations;
special attention to advising and counseling; training advisors to deal with
adults; basic skills assessment; developmental assessment (setting long- and
short-term goals and reality testing); learning and study skills; placement
testing; mentoring by successful adult students; peer support groups; and
prioritizing life roles.
Many institutions present this information systematically in orientation
seminars. The College of New Rochelle's introductory seminar is targeted to two
different populations--middle-class, female suburban students and minority,
urban, poverty-level students--with appropriate variations and emphases (Chelala
and Dance 1984). For the three stages of transition in the return to higher
education, Schlossberg et al. (1989) propose an appropriate intervention: (1)
for moving in, an Entry Education Center to coordinate the full range of entry
services and programs; (2) for moving through, an Adult Learner Support Center;
and (3) for moving on, culminating programs that allow review of the educational
experience, reevaluation of career and life plans, assistance with exit
barriers, and referral to transition groups.
ADAPTING THE UNIVERSITY TO ADULT STUDENTS
instructional strategies to enhance retention include the following: o
High-quality instruction that includes close correspondence between
instructional and student objectives o Faculty training in working with adult
learners o Involvement of adult students in program governance, including
demonstrated responsiveness to student evaluation of courses and programs o
Computerized progress tracking system o Expanded academic day, week, and year
(e.g., use the noon hour, offer 6-week modules, Sunday classes) o Expanded
locations (classes in shopping malls, courses broadcast to businesses,
hospitals, military bases) o Program continuity with links to prerequisite and
succeeding programs o Credit for prior learning
The key word for change in the institutional environment is flexibility.
Techniques include the following: o High-quality and accessible student support
services, with extended office hours o Admissions processes that consider
appropriate, contemporary assessments of adult potential o Hassle-free
registration and scheduling o Career planning and placement o Establishment of
rituals and symbols that form a sense of shared meaning and connectedness among
students, faculty, and staff
Ackell, E. F. "Adapting the University to Adult
Students: A Developmental Perspective." CONTINUUM 46, no. 2 (January 1982):
30-35. (ERIC No. EJ 259 002).
Chelala, S., and Dance, M. "Experience, Learning, and Identity." In HIGHER
EDUCATION FOR ADULTS, edited by J. W. Fonseca. Fairfax, VA: George Mason
University, 1984. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 287 426).
Metzner, B. S., and Bean, J. P. "The Estimation of a Conceptual Model of
Nontraditional Undergraduate Student Attrition." RESEARCH IN HIGHER EDUCATION
27, no. 1 (1987): 15-38. (ERIC No. EJ 366 251).
Murray, J. A., and Uhl, N. P. "Using SAS to Track Both Traditional and
Nontraditional Patterns of Enrollment." Paper presented at the Association for
Institutional Research Annual Forum, May 1988. (ERIC Document Reproduction
Service No. ED 298 870).
Pappas, J. P., and Loring, R. K. "Returning Learners." In INCREASING STUDENT
RETENTION, edited by L. Noel, R. Levitz, and D. Saluri. San Francisco:
Schlossberg, N. K.; Lynch, A. Q.; and Chickering, A. W. IMPROVING HIGHER
EDUCATION ENVIRONMENTS FOR ADULTS. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1989.
Starks, G. "Retention of Adult Women Students in the Community College."
Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association conference,
April 1987. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 281 592).
Stoecker, J.; Pascarella, E. T.; and Wolfle, L. M. "Persistence in Higher
Education." JOURNAL OF COLLEGE STUDENT DEVELOPMENT 29, no. 3 (May 1988):
196-209. (ERIC No. EJ 378 550).
Tinto, V. LEAVING COLLEGE. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
Walleri, R. D., and Peglow-Hoch, M. "Case Studies of Nontraditional High Risk
Students." Paper presented at the Association for Institutional Research Annual
Forum, May 1988. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 298 861).
Weidman, J. C. "Retention of Nontraditional Students in Postsecondary
Education." Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association
conference, April 1985. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 261 195).