No Adult Left Behind: Student Affairs Practices Offering Social Support to Adult Undergraduates
Rebecca L. Brower
Bradley E. Cox
Amber E. Hampton
Florida State University
For each of the last 6 years at Florida State University, students pursuing a master’s degree in student affairs have taken a class entitled “The American College Student.” At the beginning of the first class, the students are asked to spend 10 minutes describing American college students.
The results are pretty consistent. A self-confident student begins the discussion by describing students who look/sound/think/act a lot like he or she did just a few years earlier. Next, another student, typically one who looks/sounds/thinks/acts differently than the first student, tells the class that not all college students are the same and then goes on to describe how he or she was different from the description provided by the first student. Eventually, a student will argue that there are many ways to describe college students, and that trying to define the American college student is impossible. The class transitions to exploring this question, “How do we paint a single portrait of such a diverse group of students?” Students then list a series of characteristics that might be used to differentiate undergraduate students including demographics, institution type, and academic status. Rarely is age mentioned in the list of student characteristics.
In the second week of class, we transition from brainstorming who we think college students are, to established facts by sharing data from the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES). While this information substantiates the arguments made by the class during the activity in the first class session, one statistic often catches students by surprise. According to NCES data, the average age of undergraduate students in 2000 was 25 years old. In fact, although this population accounted for only 27% of undergraduates in 1970, roughly 42% of current undergraduates are 25 or older. These statistics are surprising to students because adult undergraduates are rarely mentioned during the initial class discussion about the different types of American college students.
This classroom experience causes us to wonder the extent to which student affairs professionals have a real awareness of adult undergraduates. This question is particularly salient right now because as Wyatt (2011) pointed out, adult students are “one of the largest and fastest growing populations of students” (p. 13). The perception that adult students are self-sufficient and do not need or want student affairs services may lead campus personnel to believe that adult undergraduates need less assistance than their traditional age peers. However, as Hardin (2008) emphasizes, “the misperception still exists that adult learners are self-supporting and do not need the same level of support as eighteen- to twenty-three-year-old students. In reality, adult learners need at least as much assistance as traditional-aged students, and sometimes more” (p. 53).
The purpose of the current research study was to examine the extent to which student affairs divisions are adopting practices that offer social support to adult undergraduates. We not only write this article as a call to action supported by our research findings, but also as an invitation to take note of a population on our campuses who are in need of greater social support. In this article we present new data suggesting that by failing to adopt adequate practices supportive of adult students, divisions of student affairs offices at four-year colleges and universities may be losing an opportunity to improve outcomes for these adult students. Therefore, our study poses the following research question: To what extent are student affairs divisions adopting practices that the literature suggests provide social support to adult undergraduates (aged 25 and older)?
As a group, adult students share a number of characteristics: they are more likely than traditional age students to be first generation, female, ethnically diverse, and financially independent (Giancola, Grawitch, & Borchert, 2009). Adult students are also more likely to study part-time, have children for whom they are financially responsible, and work in addition to studying (Giancola et al., 2009; Hardin, 2008; Kasworm, 2003). Reasons for adult students to return to college include career concerns, family needs, and self-improvement (Bauman, Wang, DeLeon, Kafentzis, Zavala-Lopez, Lindsey, 2004; Chao & Good, 2004; Kasworm, 2003). Kasworm (2003) argues that adult students are motivated to attend college by “personal transitions and changes” as well as the desire for “proactive life planning” (p.6). These transitions may occur as the result of positive or negative life events such as promotion at work, reevaluating life goals, divorce, or losing a job (Chao & Good, 2004; Hardin, 2008).
Female students, who constitute the majority of adult undergraduates, have special concerns when they return to college (Carney-Crompton & Tan, 2002). Women, in particular, are more likely to experience role conflict between home and school (Carney-Crompton & Tan, 2002). The added demands of college, along with employment and other family roles, can produce an added strain on women students juggling multiple responsibilities. Conflicts such as these are often mitigated by the calculated choices some adults make about the timing of enrollment. Women often return to school to support their family when they divorce or their children enter school (Hardin, 2008). Because psychological stability increases with age in women, female adult students may be better equipped to manage the stressors and role conflicts in their lives (Carney-Crompton & Tan, 2002; Hardin, 2008). Nonetheless, family responsibilities are the most frequently cited reason for female adult students to leave college. One important factor in this equation is the age of women’s children, because women caring for young children experience the greatest role conflict and face the most serious academic challenges (Carney-Crompton & Tan, 2002; Hardin, 2008). Regardless of students’ gender, family/school conflict can be a major source of stress for many adult students (Giancola, Grawitch, & Borchert, 2009).
Social support is an important issue for adult undergraduates, particularly for female students, because students with stronger social support systems perform better academically while students with less social support are more likely to require campus services (Bauman et al., 2004). Sources of support for adult students tend to be family, partners, friends, coworkers, and professors on campus, though off campus sources of support are often more influential in their lives (Bauman et al, 2004; Carney-Crompton & Tan, 2002 ; Chao & Good, 2004; Donaldson et al., 2000 ; Graham & Gisi, 2000). Depending on a student’s life situation, family, partners, friends, and coworkers off campus can either be a major source of social support or a major source of stress in the case of family/school and work/school conflict (Donaldson et al., 2000; Giancola, Grawitch, & Borchert, 2009).
The literature on adult undergraduates suggests a number of student affairs practices that may offer adult students social support thereby helping them to succeed in college. First, student affairs offices would benefit from an infusion of ideas from colleagues who specialize in adult undergraduates (Bauman et al., 2004; Carney-Crompton & Tan, 2002; Giancola, Grawitch, & Borchert, 2009; Graham & Gisi, 2000; Hadfield, 2003; Hardin, 2008; Wyatt, 2011). After training or hiring staff that are cognizant of adult student needs and establishing an office for adult students, student affairs personnel can poll adult students through surveys or focus groups on their service needs and the greatest barriers to their success (Hadfield, 2003). This data can be used to establish services such as child care, orientation programs for adults, and adult student organizations (Bauman et al., 2004; Carney-Crompton & Tan, 2002; Giancola, Grawitch, & Borchert, 2009; Graham & Gisi, 2000; Hadfield, 2003; Hardin, 2009).
Programming is another area in which student affairs staff can offer support and help adult undergraduates succeed. Programming that nontraditional students find particularly useful include workshops on stress and time management as well as study skills (Bauman et al., 2004; Giancola, Grawitch, & Borchert, 2009). In addition, programming that welcomes families, partners, and friends, can assist adult students in feeling included in campus life (Hadfield, 2003; Hardin, 2009). Other existing services that can be tailored to the needs of adult students include career counseling, personal counseling and support groups, academic advising, and financial aid advising (Bauman et al., 2004; Chao & Good, 2004; Donaldson et al., 2000; Giancola, Grawitch, & Borchert, 2009). These services, apart from childcare, are particularly useful for adult students who may not be interested in the traditional collegiate social experience, but benefit from resources connected to employment and course completion.
The theoretical framework for this study is grounded in psychological literature, which suggests that adults require four types of support from their social systems: emotional, appraisal, informational, and instrumental support (House, 1981). As described in House’s (1981) research, emotional support is felt when others are trustworthy and show concern; appraisal support gives positive encouragement; informational support is the ability to share knowledge and instruction; and instrumental is the shift of a physical setting or investment of funds. These categories broaden our understanding of social support and make sense in light of our study, applying equally to our research question, research design, and interpretation of findings. Specifically, we use this framework from psychological literature to categorize five student affairs practices as offering instrumental, informational, or appraisal support. Thus, childcare services offer instrumental support; new student orientations specifically for adult undergraduates provide informational support; adult student organizations and programming for student of diverse ages offer appraisal support; and hiring student affairs staff with expertise in adult undergraduates provides all three types of social support.
Methods and Data Sources
In order to determine the extent to which student affairs divisions are adopting practices that the literature suggests provide social support to adult undergraduates, we used data from the Survey of Student Affairs Policies, Programs, and Practices, which was distributed to the Chief Student Affairs Officer (typically the Vice President for Student Affairs or Dean of Students) at 57 institutions in five states (California, Florida, Iowa, Pennsylvania, and Texas). Included in this quantitative survey were 34 categories of questions that covered topics such as advising, orientation, and assessment date usage. The survey was distributed by project staff in both hard copy and electronic formats. The 57 participating institutions included 22 bachelor’s degree granting institutions, 29 master’s degree granting institutions, 2 doctoral degree granting institutions, and four specialty institutions (i.e. one Bible college, one health professions school, and two schools of art and design). Of the participating colleges and universities, 13 were public not-for-profit, 42 were private not-for-profit, and two were private for-profit institutions. The sample was inclusive of a wide range of institutional types, sizes, levels of selectivity, and sources of control/funding. To review full results from the project, visit: http://cherti.fsu.edu/LIPSS.
Our initial reports included information on the prevalence of student services in areas that the research literature suggests are especially beneficial for adult students: hiring student affairs staff with expertise in adult students, childcare services, orientation programs for adult students, student organizations for adult students, and events for students of different ages. As shown in Table 1, there were specific questions targeting student populations and the adoption of policies. Possible answers to survey questions were dichotomous “yes,” “no” responses.
|Survey Topic||Survey Question|
|Orientation||Does institution provide an orientation for specific student populations?|
|Events||Does the institution’s student affairs division hold schedule events and programming for specific student populations?|
|Student Organizations||Does the institution have formally recognized student organizations for specific student populations?|
|Staff Expertise||Does the institution purposefully recruit staff members or counselors with expertise in specific student populations?|
|Childcare Services||Does the institution have childcare services available for students?|
Table 1. Student Population Survey Questions (LIPSS)
We then compared the adoption rates of these practices (with the exception of childcare services) with those for international students and students of color. Services for traditionally underrepresented groups often increases the likelihood of success (Grant-Vallone, Reid, Umali, & Pohlert, 2003), hence, the targeted comparison of populations. We did not include survey questions about childcare services specifically for international students and students of color because these services are typically extended to all students. Therefore, childcare is not included in subsequent statistical analyses. We then performed four logistic regressions to determine whether higher percentages of adult undergraduates at an institution increased the likelihood that the student affairs practices mentioned above (excluding childcare) would be enacted at that institution.
Our survey asked the extent to which student affairs divisions were adopting practices that the literature suggests provide social support to adult undergraduates. The answer to this question was an unexpected finding that called for more attention.
Percentage of Institutions Adopting Student Affairs Practices for Specific Populations
|Student Population||International Students||Students of Color||Adult Students|
Table 2. Percentage of Institutions Adopting Student Affairs Practices for Specific Populations
*Average for African American, Hispanic, Asian American, and Native American student organizations.
As we reviewed the results (see Table 2), we encountered the same surprise as the students in our American College Student class. When we compared the adoption rates of practices for adult undergraduates to rates for international students and students of color, we found that with the exception of orientation programs for students of color, adoption rates are higher for other student populations. It was disheartening to find that student affairs services for adult undergraduates lag behind services for other groups on campus. For instance, when we asked whether student affairs divisions purposely recruited staff members or counselors with expertise in specific student populations, 53% of institutions reported staff expertise for international students, 51% for students of color, and for adult students, it was only 9% of institutions. Logistic regressions uncovered no evidence that student affairs practices for adult undergraduates was related to the percentage of adult undergraduates attending an institution. In none of the four logistic regressions was the size of the adult-student population a statistically significant predictor of adoption rates for these practices.
The regression results showed that higher percentages of adult undergraduates did not reliably distinguish between institutions with student orientations for adult students and those without such orientations (chi square = 1.706, df = 2, p = .189), nor for those with events for adult students and those without (chi square = .901, df = 2, p = .357). ), nor for those with student organizations for adult students and those without (chi square = .05, df = 2, p = .822), nor for those with student affairs staff expertise in adult students and those without (chi square = .033, df = 2, p =.855). In all of these cases, there was little relationship between the variables (Nagelkerke’s R2 of .046 for orientation, R2 of .021 for events, R2 of .001 for organizations, and R2 of .001 for staff expertise). Thus, overall the greater presence of adult undergraduates in the student population does not seem to influence the practices adopted for these students. Therefore, the differing rates at which institutions adopt services supporting adult students cannot be dismissed as simply a function of the composition of the student body.
Any type of support, whether it is from our communities, families, or staff, decreases the impact of stressors during the college yearsarney-Crompton, & Tan, 2002; Giancola, Grawitch, & Borchert, 2009; Johnson, Schwartz, & Bower, 2010), and yet, we found that many campuses were not instituting the changes needed for adults. This may be due to a lack of financial resources to develop new programming or the perception that the adult population on campus is small. However, our results illustrate that student affairs services specifically for adult students significantly lag behind services for other student groups. We affirm the crucial importance of student affairs practices for students of color and international students, and agree that these practices could be extended to adult undergraduates as well. Furthermore, the greater presence of adult undergraduates in the student population does not seem to influence the rates of adoption of student affairs practices for these students. In light of these findings and the observation that adults are the fastest growing segment of the undergraduate population (Wyatt, 2011), we suggest that student affairs divisions would be well-served by a reexamination of their practices related to nontraditional students.
What Institutions Can Do
From our literature review and survey results, we identified five student affairs practices that can offer support for adult students: hiring staff specializing in adult undergraduate experiences and issues; providing childcare; and tailoring orientation programs, programming, and student organizations to adult undergraduates. It is our hope that the availability of services and support that are developed or modified for adult students will increase their social support and success, both on and off campus. Each of the five areas described below are supported by literature suggesting that these practices are especially beneficial for adult undergraduates.
Our survey revealed that relatively few institutions hire student affairs staff with expertise in adult undergraduates. Student affairs offices can benefit from the insights of colleagues who have attended college as adult undergraduates or who specialize in the needs of adult undergraduates (Bauman et al., 2004; Carney-Crompton & Tan, 2002; Giancola, Grawitch, & Borchert, 2009; Graham & Gisi, 2000; Hadfield, 2003; Hardin, 2008; Wyatt, 2011). Thus, we argue that a crucial first step in addressing the needs of these students is to hire or train staff with expertise in the lifestyles of nontraditional students.
Having advocates for adult students on staff might also then lead to the establishment of a central office where information and services could be disseminated to adult students. Giancola, Grawitch, and Borchert (2009) discuss a common thread for adults in dealing with conflicting commitments: conflicts among work, school, and family are prevalent among adult undergraduates. Finding a space such as a student affairs office with staff members who specialize in adult undergraduates can help adults navigate these conflicts (Hadfield, 2003). We cannot overstate the importance of advocacy on behalf of adult students in areas that will be beneficial for them and offer resources, skills, support, and peace of mind. Even hiring one staff member can make all the difference for adults.
If we frame the needs of adult students in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a basic need is the financial means to attend college. But more often than not, another basic requirement of adult students is the need to care for children, particularly for adult women, who as a gender, make up the majority of adult students (Johnson, Schwartz, & Bower, 2010). Miller, Gault, and Thorman’s (2011) research identifies that in the year 2008, 23% of undergraduate students identified as being parents. Many of these parents face greater challenges in college and have a lower rate of degree completion than students who do not have children (Miller, Gault, & Thorman, 2011). This fact brings childcare to the forefront as a way to increase access for adult undergraduates.
Many more schools have begun to institute transfer student orientation, which is an improvement in sharing institutional resources with incoming students from other colleges. Because many transfer students come from community colleges as well (Erisman & Steele, 2015), it may be advantageous for institutions to consider adding specific adult student components. New student orientations specifically for adult undergraduates could provide both informational and social support. A tailored adult student orientation can assist students in adjusting to college and connecting with resources on campus. Since social support is an important consideration for adult undergraduates, orientation programs specifically for adults would help nontraditional students network with one another and adjust to the academic and social demands of college life. Adult student organizations would likewise provide nontraditional students with a sense of belonging and validation for the stressors in their lives. An approach like this is likely to help all nontraditional students, and specifically assist adult students in building their peer networks and in adjusting to the academic and social demands of college life.
Programming is another area in which student affairs staff can help adult undergraduates succeed. Bauman et al. (2004) and Giancola, Grawitch, and Borchert (2009) found that programming that nontraditional students find particularly useful includes workshops on stress and time management as well as study skills. In addition to skills-related programming, social programs that are open to families, partners, and children can widen avenues of involvement and feelings of belonging for adults.
Adult student organizations would likewise provide nontraditional students with a sense of belonging, along with validation for the stressors in their lives (Bauman et al., 2004; Carney-Crompton & Tan, 2002; Giancola, Grawitch, & Borchert, 2009; Graham & Gisi, 2000; Hadfield, 2003; Hardin, 2009). Our study revealed that fewer events are geared to students of different ages than to international students and students of color. This deficit could be addressed through the development of programs that go beyond one identity, and instead cater to the multiple identities that students have. As an example, an existing program geared towards African American students could add the words “children and families welcome” to shift the way a program is perceived by adult students.
Our study suggests that student affairs services offering social support to adult undergraduates lag behind services for other groups on campus. We also find that the percentage of undergraduates in the student population has little relationship to the availability of services for these students. Thus, we argue that student affairs divisions can do much more to facilitate the success of adult undergraduates in four-year colleges and universities. Specifically, we recommend that student affairs divisions hire staff with expertise in adult undergraduates, who could then establish offices with services tailored to the needs of these students.
- How might your institution adapt existing events and services to encourage adult undergraduate participation?
- Adult undergraduates often struggle to balance responsibilities such as work and family with academics. How might the advice and resources you provide adult undergraduates differ from the advice and resources you provide traditional-aged students?
- It is often assumed that adult undergraduates should become assimilated into college life. We propose that it is equally important for colleges to become better integrated in the lives of students. How might colleges better integrate the college culture with adult students’ lives?
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About the Authors
Rebecca L. Brower is a Research Associate at the Center for Postsecondary Success at Florida State University. Her research focuses on institutional policies in higher education, particularly diversity policies that facilitate student encounters with difference.
Bradley E. Cox is an Associate Professor of higher education in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at Florida State University. His research explores how institutional policies shape student experiences in college, with a particular emphasis on the systemic, institutional, and personal conditions that shape college experiences and outcomes for students on the autism spectrum.
Amber E. Hampton is an Associate Director at the Center for Leadership & Social Change at Florida State University and current doctoral student in the Higher Education program focusing on public policy. Hampton’s work as an Associate Director involves increasing dialogue as a form of communication across campus through programs with faculty, staff, and students. Her research as a student focuses on college access and underrepresented populations in higher education.
Please e-mail inquiries to Rebecca L. Brower.
The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.