Making Space for Adult Learners in Higher Education

Authors: Denise Goerisch*, Grand Valley State University, Karyn Rabourn, Grand Valley State University
Topics: Higher Education, Qualitative Methods, Cultural Geography
Keywords: higher education, adult learners, education, college, college students,
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/4/2019
Start / End Time: 9:55 AM / 11:35 AM
Room: Committee Room, Omni, West
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Undergraduate students over the age of 25, or adult students or learners, are distinct from their traditional-aged peers (18-24 years old), which can result in increased educational barriers. These barriers include part-time attendance, limitations to enroll in primarily online, hybrid, or evening courses, and lack of opportunities to form meaningful connections with students and faculty. In addition to academic barriers, adult learners often face challenges in their personal lives including acquiring affordable child care, accessing healthcare, and managing households. Initial findings indicate that adult undergraduate students over the age of 25 expressed that time, as a resource, was the major determinant of the level of engagement with professional and academic opportunities presented inside and outside of the classroom. Students find it difficult to simultaneously be employed full time and participate in professional development and academic enrichment requirements such as internships. Adult learners also perceived that institutional policies and practices were largely designed with the ‘traditional’ student in mind, often resulting in an increased barrier to successful professional and academic development. American universities and colleges have seen a significant increase in students over the age of 25, but have not been able to fully accommodate these students to the same degree as traditional-aged undergraduates. Based on a qualitative study on college affordability at a large, public, masters-comprehensive institution in the Midwest, we examine how adult learners navigate the spaces of the university and how this impacts their academic, personal, and professional goals.

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