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Voices of the Global Community


Cheryl Polson, NACADA Charter Member and Commission on Advising Adult Learners Past Chair

Cheryl Polson.jpgAt a time when the primary focus of higher education institutions was the recruitment and retention of the 18-to-22 year old college student, NACADA had the vision to examine the advising needs of the adult student.  Although other  organizations had already created specific units devoted to the professional development needs of individuals working with adult learners, their membership remained consistently low and rather uninspired to become more actively involved in changing the campus climate for adult learners.  Through an energized and empowered membership, NACADA emerged as a critical support for adult learner advocates.  The history of NACADA’s commissions, and specifically the Advising Adult Learners Commission, is a true testament of the organization’s willingness to listen to its constituents.

In 1984, NACADA was only five years old and truly offered the benefits associated with being a relatively young association in its flexibility to respond to the professional needs of its membership.  While it would be impressive to boast that a grand vision guided the development of this Task Force, which was the precursor to the Advising Adult Learners Commission, it could more accurately be described as pure accident.  National Conference attendees whose primary responsibility revolved around working with students who were older than the average college student seemed to move en masse to every conference session that included the word “adult” in its title.  It was as though advisors of adult students had finally discovered a professional home for which we had all been searching. 

The impetus to formalize what had become an informal professional network began at a roundtable discussion. Chuck Connell, the 1984 NACADA President, was asked by 12 NACADA members to initiate the formation of a Task Force on Advising Adult Students.  The initial Task Force meeting was held during the 1985 National Conference, where small group discussions led to the identification of the unit’s goals.  Raising the consciousness of all advisors to the special needs of adult learners was viewed as the most critical goal.  To accomplish this goal, we felt it was imperative that a working definition of adult learner be established.  The 1986 NACADA Task Force Report on Advising Adult Learners (Polson,et.al, 1986) suggested that the general definition of the adult learner in contemporary society was, “A person who is a high school graduate or holder of a GED, and who has been away from formal education for at  least two years.  The person may hold either a full- or part-time job, have established his/her own home and assumed roles other than that of student. The adult learner is often a part-time learner since education is often not his/her primary concern.”  The full report establishes the rationale for integrating the various factors considered in this definition and purposefully avoids assigning the term “non-traditional student” to this increasing student clientele.  The report’s authors hoped to dissuade institutions from mislabeling the adult learner in that they were convinced that the future would find the number of adult learners as prevalent as traditional college students.

Cheryl Polson and Virginia Gordon.jpgAn additional goal of the Task Force was to conduct a national survey to determine to what degree and in what way institutions were responding to adult learners on their campuses.  In 1986, this landmark study was summarized in the Task Force Report, which remained a top selling NACADA resource for over a decade.  It was also submitted and accepted by ERIC (ED277902).  A more thorough examination of the survey findings as they pertained to the impact of administrative support and institutional type on adult learner services was submitted and accepted for publication in the NACADA Journal (Polson & Eriksen, 1988).  Other Task Force efforts included the publication of the Academic Advising News-Critical Issues in Advising Adult Learners (1988), the publication of an issue of the NACADA Journal focused on adult learners (1989), and adult learner tracks at NACADA’s national and regional conferences.

The above efforts contributed to a major increase in the Task Force’s visibility, resulting in approximately 25 percent of the NACADA membership becoming members in this vital unit.  Clearly, this proactive Task Force could no longer be viewed as a “temporary” unit of NACADA.  The Spring 1988 Task Force Board report requested Board approval to become a permanent unit of the organization.  This request was made at a time when NACADA was experiencing growing pains and forced the first examination of the organizational structure. I remember the Board discussions as being rather heated, with some original board members unwilling to support the formation of Commissions. They argued that while Commissionsmight be a suitable alternative because they would serve the needs of a large group of the membership or the long term interests of the Association, there was the inherit danger that the Commissions would become more important to the membership than the parent organization.  However, the existing NACADA structures seemed inappropriate. Task Forces were seen as being temporary structures formed to accomplish a specific task within a given time frame, and standing committees were viewed as permanent committees of the organization focusing on operational issues.  Related issues revolved around who would attend mid-yearBoard meetings and the additional costs associated with an increasing board membership.  Unable to resolve these issues, the Board voted to make the Adult Learner Task Force an ad hoc committee.  After further Board debates, the first Commissions were established at the Fall 1988 Board meeting.  Spring 1989 Board minutes include Commission Board reports submitted by the Adult Learner Commission, the Minority Concerns Commission, Advising as a Profession/Placement Commission, and the Standards Commission.

Almost 25 years ago, NACADA became a professional lifeline for many of us who felt a unique isolation on our campuses as we were often the lone adult learner advocate.  NACADA provided us the opportunity to network professionally while raising higher educations awareness of this underserved student clientele. At first glance this may seem insignificant to NACADA’s history, but the resulting organization change this unit would later stimulate has had a lasting impact.  Today NACADA has 23 Commissions, two of which were created as recently as 2008.  Responding to changing membership needs continues to be a strength that has served NACADA well these past three decades.

Cheryl Polson
Associate Dean-Graduate School
Kansas State University
[email protected]

Cite this article using APA style as: Polson, C. (2009, September). Task force on adult student advisors: Providing the stimulus for organizational change. Academic Advising Today, 32(3). Retrieved from [insert url here]


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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.