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John Rans, Drexel University

John Rans.jpbI completed my undergraduate degree in 2007 and my graduate degree in 2011.  Securing that first full-time job in higher education was no easy feat due to the phenomenon which has been deemed “The Great Recession.”  I was more than happy when my alma mater welcomed me back with open arms in the fall of 2012.  I vividly remember my elation when I was offered the position over the phone, and then it hit me after I hung up: I would be advising adult students.  This was not something for which I had planned.  Years of education, theory, and practice all prepared me to guide the development of 18- to 22-year-old students. 

I was initially apprehensive I would not be able to relate to adult students.  In retrospect, I am humbled to say my assumption was wrong.  During my two years of graduate school, I moved to a new city, completed a full-time course load, interned at three different institutions, and waited tables to pay my rent.  Like my hectic graduate experience, adult students are busy juggling the demands of modern life.  The stories I have been privileged to hear from my students over the past year and a half have been inspirational on both a practitioner and personal level.  Here are five critical lessons I have learned about this ever-important, rising student population.

There is no typical adult student. I have students who are 19 years old and others who are 59 years old.  Some are executives of Fortune 500 companies, while others are just eager to finish a degree they began years ago to set a good example for their families.  They are retirees, single parents, immigrants, homemakers, military veterans, students living with disabilities, and the list goes on.  From my experience I have found there is no one typical profile of an adult student.  In their NACADA Pocket Guide, Peck and Varney (2011) state that due to the different definitions various campuses use for adult learners and the difficulty categorizing this growing population, “it appears to be a challenge to find one definition that encapsulates all adult learners” (p. 4).  The diversity of backgrounds I have personally worked with has always kept me engaged and learning.

Every student has a story that needs to be told.  Peter Hagan (2006) delivered a keynote address at the New Jersey Advising Conference in which he argued the necessity of having an advising theory as a framework.  He specifically linked theory from the humanities to advising and cited how humanistic perspectives from these theories can inform our daily practice.  Specifically, he connected Walter Fisher’s narrative theory to academic advising.  Narrative theory argues that human beings are natural storytellers that make meaning through constructing and sharing narratives.  This theory is undoubtedly pertinent to advising.

From my experience, adult students are more apt to reach out to me once they have had the opportunity to share their story.  This story only takes a few minutes, but can make all the difference in the advisor/advisee relationship.  Without a story, the interaction is more transactional and less developmental.  I am making it a practice when I first meet a student, whether in person or virtually, to ask for their educational history and professional experience.  I have also been trying to share my story if it helps make connections, as I am doing in this article.  I wholeheartedly agree with Hagan (2006) that narratives are an extremely powerful advising tool.

Expectations need to be established and managed. Since adult students are extremely busy, it is helpful to establish clear expectations.  I have found that being forthright from the beginning of the relationship helps students understand exactly what they need to do to attain the end goal of a degree.  I inform students an approximate time when they are scheduled to graduate if they follow their plan of study while letting them know that roadblocks will come up and that is all right.  Hadfield (2003) explains that it is typical for active adult students to need to take some time off due to other priorities.  She explains her experience at Doane College: “During any term, we can expect that up to 40 percent of our active students will not enroll in a course.  Their absence does not mean they are not retained” (p. 19).  I have found this assessment to be very accurate, but I always leave the door open for students to come back when they are ready.            

Student development includes adult learners.  Kasworm (2008) gives insight into four challenges that can aid adult learners in their development of a student identity.  She examines these challenges as possible acts of hope, which include admission into college, continued engagement in the collegiate environment, comprehending new knowledge, and finally finding a voice in the college community.  Kasworm (2008) succinctly explains this process, noting that “Adult students come as highly complex yet changing selves.  They negotiate their sense of an adult student identity based in who they are and who they wish to become” (p. 33).  Adult learners can experience anxiety throughout their educational journey as their competencies are challenged.  Academic advisors are an integral part of this transition and in providing guidance with confidently establishing this new identity.  I appreciate Kasworm’s framework and believe fostering these acts of hope can make a huge impact in the advising relationship and retention.

Adult students are more customer savvy.  Part of being adults is better understanding ourselves and our needs or wants.  According to Hadfield (2003), adult students consider themselves customers who understandably hold institutions accountable for results.  As competition increases, students have more options and customer service is quickly becoming vital to a positive college experience for adult students.  From my experience, adult students are much more cognizant of the resources they are putting into college, including time, so they have expectations as consumers. 

Adult students need to be considered in the big picture of campus culture, and I think my initial hesitancy in working with them parallels common misconceptions about adult students and their place in higher education.  This outdated view is quickly being established as antiquated as universities are institutionalizing policies and creating spaces to support all students.  With support from Lumina Foundation, Pusser et al. (2007) explain the essential need for higher education to make college more accessible for adult students, noting that “In the 21st century, our nation needs to maximize the potential of adult learners to face global challenges.  Adult learners can support the nation’s efforts to increase global competiveness, but adult learners need their national institutions to support them …” (p. 18).  I agree with this statement, which means we must adapt to the coming changes as instructors, practitioners, and institutions.  The stories I have heard in the last year from adult students have a common theme of resiliency, which is a narrative that I think will be a core theme for our growing world.  There is so much to learn from adult students and my experience thus far has been absolutely humbling.  I truly look forward to continue this mutual learning process. 

John Rans
Academic Advisor
Goodwin College of Professional Studies
Drexel University
[email protected]


Hagan, P. L. (2006, June). Ghostwriting autobiographies: Advising and the humanities. New Jersey advising conference: Keynote address, Union, New Jersey. Retrieved from http://caa.asu.edu/files/images/aphies--Academic_Advising_and_the_Humanities.doc

Kasworm, C. E. (2008). Emotional challenges of adult learners in higher education. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 2008 (120), 27-34. doi: 10.1002/ace.313

Hadfield, J. (2003). Recruiting and retaining adult students. New Directions for Student Services, (102), 7-26. Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ss.85/pdf

Peck, L., & Varney, J. (2011). Understanding and addressing the needs of adult learners. Manhattan, KS: NACADA.

Pusser, B., Breneman, D. W., Gasneder, B.M., Kohl, K. J., Levin , J. S., Milam, J. H., & Turner, S. E. (2007). Returning to learning: Adults' success in college is key to America's future. Indianapolis, IN: Lumina Foundation. Retrieved from http://www.luminafoundation.org/publications/ReturntolearningApril2007.pdf

Cite this article using APA style as: Rans, J. (2014, March). The resiliency of adult learners. Academic Advising Today, 37(1). Retrieved from [insert url here]

Posted in: 2014 March 37:1


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