Academic Advising Resources


Resources on Advising Adult Learners

This is an article in a series celebrating NACADA 30th anniversary. In this series current NACADA members build upon the work done within the 1995 monograph, Advising as a Comprehensive Campus Process , as they highlight the important connections advisors make across campus.

Advising IS teaching: Providing adult learners with strategies for self- advocation
Lisa G. Peck and Jennifer Varney

Adult learners come to our campuses with their backpacks full of experiences, challenges and responsibilities, adding to the weight of their brand new textbooks in ways that set them apart from the traditional-aged student. Often delaying their enrollment into postsecondary education because their lives have taken them down a different path, including marriage and raising a family, entering the military, and/or working full-time, adult learners need to find their academic stride as well as their academic voice on campus. Kasworm (2008) points out that adult learners “face challenges in gaining a place, a position, a voice and a related sense of valued self in the cultural worlds of higher education” (p. 32). Why should advisors be concerned with the adult learner’s “voice” and sense of self?

According to The 2008 National Adult Student Priorities Report Noel Levitz, adult students “25 years of age and older make up nearly 50% of the U. S. college enrollments. Thirty percent of these students are enrolled full-time and 70% are seeking degrees” (p. 2). Women comprise, by far, the largest percentage of adult learners (Bash 2003) at approximately 70% (p. 45), and the rate of increase in female adult learners aged 30 – 34 has been particularly aggressive, growing “from 0.7% in 1952 to 7.7% in 2000 – an eleven-fold increase – while the rate for men of the same age only expanded 3.9% during the same period” (p. 45). Clearly, this is a student population that shows no signs of declining any time soon.

Despite the number of adult learners who attend our institutions, this population tends to feel invisible on traditional college and university campuses where most everything is geared towards the traditional student. Orientation, welcome week, student support services and extra-curricular activities are just a few of the programs that are intended to help balance and enrich the lives of 18 – 22 year old students. While institutions with adult-friendly degree programs do offer special offices to serve adults, as well as adult learner orientations and adult student organizations, many traditional institutions do not offer services for the adult learner (Kasworm 2008). Granted, adult learners have little time for extra-curricular activities; however, many adult learners lack the sense of community and belonging on college campuses that traditional students might experience. If adult learners lack a sense of belonging at a traditional campus, they may seek out institutions with degree programs and services that cater to their particular demographic.

Advisors often go the extra mile in advocating for the adult learner population in an effort to help these students establish a sense of community and belonging; however, the voices of academic advisors and advising administrators are not enough. If, as the NACADA slogan states, “ADVISING IS TEACHING,” then, advisors must teach adult learners to advocate for themselves, to ask for what they want and need from their institutions. Teaching self-advocation to adults may sound odd. Shouldn’t this population be able to question a professor, or voice a concern to an administrator? Not necessarily. Remember, when this population attended high school – ten, twenty or thirty years ago (and sometimes longer), teachers and administrators may not have tolerated being challenged by a student. In college, things are different. The students’ voices tend to be heard by administrators because of the simple fact that students are paying customers. Without the students’ financial support and commitment to the institution, institutional revenue and reputation may decline.

Stokes (nd) observes that nontraditional students arrive with a particular set of issues and concerns that need to be addressed:

  • Ease of transfer credit process
  • Flexible program design and course delivery
  • Recognition of experience and work based learning already obtained
  • Academic and motivational advising supportive of their life and career goals

Advisors can assist with the academic and motivational support; however, adult learners must develop their voices on campus if transfer credit, program design and/or credit for life-work experience are areas of concern on their particular campus.

Misconceptions about adult learners inspire the need for adult learners as “co-creators of knowledge”

Educators and administrators may assume that adult learners need less attention than do the traditional-aged students when, in fact, the opposite may be true. According to the Council on Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL 2000), “the misperception still exists that adult learners are ‘self-supporting’ and do not need the same level of support as 18-23 year olds. In reality, adult learners need as much as, if not more than, their younger cohorts in the way of quality academic and student support” (p. 11).

Lovett (as quoted by Bash 2003) asserts that institutions are slow to recognize the challenges facing the adult learner:

Another threat to higher education’s foundation emerged in the 1980’s, but went unnoticed, at least initially. The threat came from the reluctance of traditional colleges and universities, both public and private, to accommodate the needs and preferences of new, nontraditional participants in higher education. The prosperity of the 1990s masked the depth and breadth of this problem. Well-employed adult students, or in some cases their employers, stepped into the gap and chose to pay relatively high tuition to new institutions able to provide good instruction and mentoring, along with convenient schedules (p. 4-5).

Poison (as quoted by Bland 2003) adds to these assertions, stating “Adults perhaps more than any other student population needs someone within the institution who cares” (7).

And what administrators may forget, when politely ignoring the adult learner population, is that these students will be alumni, possibly university employees and community spokespersons for the potential adult learner population with which they associate. Bash (2003) encourages readers to understand the adult learners “influence on all parts of the university” (p. v111), not just on academics.

The question arises, particularly in times of economic crisis, how can advisors encourage institutional response to the needs of the adult learner? The answer may lie, in part, in the advisor’s partnership with the adult learner.

Often, the academic advisor functions as the adult student’s touchstone, the human campus directory, the flesh and blood academic steering wheel, the point of contact; however, like any relationship, the advisement relationship is a partnership. CAEL’s (2000) discussion of adult learning theory can be applied to the advising partnership if we consider the advisor and advisee “co-creators of knowledge.” (p.6) “(A)dult learners can be recognized as potential co-creators of knowledge; their experiences understood, not as evidence of a ‘disconnect’ between academic theory and real life, but as something which continually enriches and contributes to the learning process” (CAEL, p. 6).

With anticipated growth of the adult learner population at colleges and universities, CAEL (2000) asserts that “a telling sign of institutional commitment to (their) Student Support Systems Principle is the degree to which faculty members engage in “coaching their students on matters academic and otherwise” (p. 12). Like faculty advisors, professional advisors coach students on “matters academic and otherwise.”

CAEL (2000) further suggests that advisors can do several things to help adult learners acclimate to the college environment while developing skills and self-advocation strategies. One strategy is to increase the frequency and nature of student outreach, particularly towards current students and their engagement in the curriculum and availability of services offered. The outreach could be sent through traditional methods, but it may be best to also target students where they typically are: the commuter lounge, café or other student gathering places. Another method advisors may use to help nontraditional students develop confidence and self advocation skills is to refer these students to campus resources that can assist with life and career planning (i.e. Counseling Center, Career Development Center).

Part of the teaching that goes on in advising is helping the student to advocate for oneself. Rather than telling or prescribing solutions for our non-traditional student advisees, advisors must teach students how to successfully navigate the system of higher education not only when it comes to scheduling classes, but when it comes to finding a voice. Among CAEL’s (2000) exemplary practices supporting their “Student Support Services Principle” is addressing “the life circumstances of the adult (e.g. child care, support networks, adult-centered orientation and advising)” in addition to providing “support for adult learners at times and places that are congruent with work schedules” (p. 12). As unpopular as this suggestion may be, campus support services for the adult learner need to be available after 5 p.m. and/or online.

. Adults as learners and as advisees:Adult Learners in the AcademyTelling the adult learner how to garner support, or confront issues of concern on campus, may not be as effective as coaching the adult learner in ways to self-advocate. As Bland (2003) explains, prescriptive advising “is a one-way street – the advisor holds the control and the power,” while “(d)evelopmental advising facilitates and guides, thus strengthening the advisor/advisee relationship and empowering the student for personal, academic and career success” (p. 7). Developmental advising for adult learners suits the characteristics of andragogy (adult learning) that Bash (2003) outlines in his book:

  • Are self directed
  • Thrive on encouragement and nurturing
  • Learn from and share experiences
  • Rely on discussion, experience, experiments, simulation and problem-solving to learn
  • Want to apply knowledge and skills immediately
  • Internally experience a need to learn (p.140)

Utilizing the developmental theory of advising along with principles of andragogy, advisors can:

  • Encourage adult learners to self-advocate
  • Empathize with and champion the need for institutional support
  • Share ideas about creating a “place” and a “voice” on campus
  • Assist with brain-storming and problem-solving
  • Direct students to administrators who can affect their cause


Advisors can help change the legacy of advising culture by combining empathy with students and engagement in their plans for academic success, and also offering tools for change. Increasingly, as our economy and culture change, students must find the tools to help them cope with change. If we are unable to provide these services on our campuses, given the current economic situation, it is highly likely that someone on another campus will (Cronin & Horton, 2009). Learning is more than academic. Sure, we need “reading, writing and arithmetic,” but we also must teach adult students how to be part of the academic culture – and beyond. Higher education is as much about personal growth as it is about scholarly growth.

As Kasworm concludes, “At the heart of collegiate learning is the recognition of the adult as not just a mind at work, but also of a complex individual who is both a learner and a contributor to the class and the institution” (p. 33). All students should leave higher education prepared for a lifetime of learning not only intellectual subjects, but also practical solutions to every day issues. Adults come to our campuses seeking change through education – career transitions, whether forced or chosen, and personal discovery. Although advisors cannot take all the weight of those backpacks off the shoulders of adult and non-traditional students, they can help students balance the load they carry while also finding a “place” and a “voice” on campus.

Lisa G. Peck
Western Connecticut State University
Chair, NACADA Advising Adult Learner Commission

Jennifer Varney
Southern New Hampshire University
Incoming chair, NACADA Advising Adult Learner Commission


Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing.Adult learners in the academy.Bash, Lee. (2003).

Bland, S. M.. (2003). Advising Adults: Telling or Coaching?, 14(2), 6-9. Retrieved March 3, 2009, from Teacher Reference Center database.Adult Learning

Council on Adult and Experiential Learning (2000). Serving Adult Learners in Higher Education, retrieved March 31, 2009 from 

J.M. & Horton, H.E. (2009, May 22). Will higher education be the next bubble to burst? The Chronicle of Higher Education, Retrieved May 18, 2009 from

Kasworm, C.E. (2008) Emotional challenges of adult learners in higher education. New Directions for Adult & Continuing Education, 27-34, Retrieved March 3, 2009, from Education Research Database.

National Adult Student Priorities Report Noel–Levitz. (2008) Retrieved May 26, 2009.

Stokes, .P.J. (nd). Hidden in plain sight: adult learners forge a new tradition in higher education.  A National Dialogue: The Secretary of Education’s Commission on the future of Higher Education. 

Discussion questions

  • Do you hear comments from adult learners about feeling “invisible” among traditional-aged students? If you so, do you ever hear any “wish list” comments (i.e. – “I wish our university had an adult learner lounge?”)
  • What are some of the academic issues that arise with adult learners on your campus (i.e. credit for life/work experience, flexible program design, transfer credit)?
  • Are there particular administrators on your campus to whom you could steer adult learners if “issues” arise that need to be addressed? Identify those administrators.
  • Brainstorm some ideas about helping your adult learner population create a “place” and a “voice” on campus.
  • What are some of the things that you believe your campus does well in serving nontraditional students? Are there things that could be done better?

Cite this using APA style as:

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 website:

Actions: E-mail | Permalink |
The contents of all material on this Internet site are copyrighted by the National Academic Advising Association, unless otherwise indicated. Copyright is not claimed as to any part of an original work prepared by a U.S. or state government officer or employee as part of that person's official duties. All rights are reserved by NACADA, and content may not be reproduced, downloaded, disseminated, published, or transferred in any form or by any means, except with the prior written permission of NACADA, or as indicated or as indicated in the 'Copyright Information for NACADA Materials' statement. Copyright infringement is a violation of federal law and is subject to criminal and civil penalties. NACADA and National Academic Advising Association are service marks of the National Academic Advising Association.

Index of Topics
Advising Resources

Do you have questions?  Do you need help with an advising topic? 
Email us.