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Voices of the Global Community


Pat Mason-Browne, The University of Iowa
Tamra Ortgies Young, Georgia Perimeter College

Editor’s Note: Tamra has recently completed the NACADA Emerging Leaders Program.  Pat served as her mentor throughout the program, leading to this collaboration.

Pat Mason-Browne.jpgAn adult learner:  “Any student, regardless of age, who has adult  responsibilities beyond college classes, and for whom those adult responsibilities take priority in times of crisis” (NACADA Advising Adult Learners Commission).

Tamra Ortgies Young.jpgAdvisors of undergraduate students have become aware of a shift in their advisee demographic.  As reported by the Lumina Foundation (Headden, 2009), colleges and universities have been experiencing an increase in the enrollment of “nontraditional” students.  The advisees sitting across from us may be adult learners who have deferred enrollment in order to pursue employment or military service immediately after high school.  Because they may be financially independent, their job commitment is closer to full-time than part-time.  And as commuters to our campus, their level of engagement is less than that of our 18- to 22-year-old advisees.   Adult learners also bring a variety of life experiences to the new educational environment. Advisors need to listen carefully and give these students time to share their significant life stories with us. Only in this way can we offer the kinds of support they need to thrive academically and personally in our classrooms. 

Neal and Bell (2008) describe characteristics that can affect the performance of female students who decide to enter the new learning environment of higher education.  While they experience many of the same challenges as male students (time management, balancing family, work and academic commitments), women tend to seek networks of cultural peers in order to grow developmentally.  A decision to enroll in college can disrupt the peer or support network by bringing negative judgment and criticism to bear: why is she leaving her family to fend for itself just so she can go to school?  Female adult learners may find themselves stretched physically and emotionally as they try to maintain their existing networks while incorporating new ones (instructors, advisors, and the campus community).

What do nontraditional female students say about their experience as adult learners? Their voices speak eloquently to advisors about the importance of listening and responding to student needs. 

In a study conducted at a two-year urban public college in November 2011, female students (ages 34+) were surveyed to ascertain their experiences as adult learners.  While some questions focused on demographic information and use of college support services, the main thrust of the research was to better understand the stories of these women.  This was accomplished by a series of open-ended questions that allowed students to express from the heart of their successes and struggles in pursuing academic dreams at this point in their lives.  Why did they enter or return to college?  How does this experience make them feel?  How has the experience changed them? And finally, what advice would these students have for peers considering college?

Students were asked to complete a 20-question survey with many open-ended response opportunities.   The survey was conducted online via official college student email solicitations.  The email requests for participation were colorful and included a changing series of inclusive images of women designed to attract a higher response rate.  Examples of these images included African-American and Latino women readers looking over reading materials.  A fortuitous bit of timing was that the month of November falls in the early registration period when students check email for information about their dates for pre-registration for spring term.  The combination of the two strategies resulted in a response rate of 14% (419/2901) of possible respondents. The rate of completion of the survey was consistent with the demographic spread in each age grouping, suggesting that the sample was valid across age ranges above 34.

Results from the survey data revealed that 21.5% of respondents were enrolled in college for the first time. Those who were returning to college reported numerous reasons for having left, including family and financial concerns and lack of motivation/support, as well as scheduling, transportation, and technology issues.  Comments from students about the desire to return to college are particularly illuminating.  Statements suggested that returning to college resulted from extrinsic factors including the state of the economy, wish for a better job, need for career change, unemployment pressures, and timing related to empty nest syndrome.

Other data suggested that for some women, intrinsic motivators were at work, such as the need for a career rather than a job, a better life, renewed personal motivation, the desire for personal satisfaction, and the need to prove self-worth or to do more with one’s life.  Those surveyed felt strongly that other women considering returning to school or entering college should not wait for the exact “right time.”  Suggestions included getting help, support, peer assistance, and motivational assistance to make a successful transition into academia.  Several students commented that is never too late to learn, and that the key to academic excellence is to remain determined! 

The survey asked female students over age 34 whether they had used or would like to use a number of different student services.  A vast majority reported that they have used the advising (78%), library (76%), and tutoring and technology services (60%) on campus.  A relatively low number, however, have participated in student organizations (12%) or wellness programs (18%), with only 15 students indicating that they were active in the designated campus organization for adult students, the Second Wind Club.  Despite this low number of adult student organization participants, a majority (59%) said that they would like to connect with other students.  Most suggested that virtual contact was the best way for them to participate due to scheduling and family issues. 

While a clear majority of those surveyed (327/419) suggested that they had visited the campus advising office at least once, most indicated that they were self-advised (31.8%), advised by family (10.9%) or by other students (10.4%), or not advised (3.9%).  The number of students who received academic advising through official college venues turned out to be surprisingly low.  Only 29% percent of the women said they were advised by advising service counselors, 11.7% by a faculty member and 2.3% by a student club advisor.  Students did suggest that advisors can help facilitate sessions by listening, guiding, sharing, providing goal setting activities, tracking progress, and/or assisting with focus, graduation planning and general encouragement.

A key to encouraging students to succeed may be found in the final survey query.  The women surveyed answered the question, “College makes me feel…”  with responses that included “active, encouraged, frustrated, successful, young again, empowered, courageous, studious, wonderful, positive, challenged, self-assured, confident, valuable, and hopeful.”

As academic advisors, we can help to facilitate important support networks for female adult learners on our campus.  It is imperative to learn the student’s life story, not just what is revealed through the course schedule, test scores, or existing grades but rather what motivates her individual drive to succeed.  As a partner to this transformation process, advisors can tap into the student growth that is already occurring at this point in the lives of nontraditional female students due to internal and external triggers and transitions.  Harnessing this naturally occurring development can provide a multiplier effect for positive outcomes.  Dig a little deeper and the richness of what is uncovered will reward both student and advisor.

Pat Mason-Browne
Senior Associate Director Academic Programs & Student Development
The University of Iowa
[email protected]

Tamra Ortgies Young
Social Science Faculty Member
Georgia Perimeter College
[email protected]


NACADA’s Advising Adult Learner Commission Website:

Neal, S.J., & Bell, A.  (2008). What I do matters, too:  Transformation and success of first-generation adult women in undergraduate education.  Denver: American Association of Adult and Continuing Education.

Headden, S.M. (2009, Fall). ‘Adult ed’ grows up: Higher education seeks to better serve increasing numbers of nontraditional learners.  Lumina Foundation Focus.  Retrieved from http://focus.luminafoundation.org/pdf/fall2009/ 

Peck, L.G. & Varney, J.  (2009). Advising IS teaching: Providing adult learners with strategies for self- advocation. Retrieved from NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources Web site: http://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Clearinghouse/View-Articles/Providing-adult-learners-with-strategies-for-self-advocation.aspx

Varney, J. & Peck, L.G. (2012).  Understanding and Addressing the Needs of Adult Learners.  NACADA Pocket Guide Series PG12.   

Cite this article using APA style as: Mason-Browne, P. & Ortgies Young, T. (2013, June). Other voices: Female adult learner. Academic Advising Today, 36(2). Retrieved from [insert url here]

Posted in: 2013 June 36:2


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Academic Advising Today, a NACADA member benefit, is published four times annually by NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising. NACADA holds exclusive copyright for all Academic Advising Today articles and features. For complete copyright and fair use information, including terms for reproducing material and permissions requests, see Publication Guidelines.