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Adult Educators and Colleges:
Establishing a Partnership to Promote Transition to College

Maria Rose
Farimont State College
West Virginia

    This article speaks to the needs of nontraditional adults entering school and workplace. The editors think many of these adults are our pre-GED or GED students. Please let us know if you see this connection.

Life is not linear but cyclical. People change jobs, start new families, and make drastic changes in their lives. Adult life is a process that moves from periods of stability to periods of instability and transitions to stability (Hudson 1991). No longer does life follow a linear pattern of going to school, graduating, getting married, working, raising a family, and retiring. Personal life is lived among many conflicting plans and social forces, so change is inevitable. Furthermore, in the present economy, no one pattern of employment can be expected. Few people remain in the same jobs their entire lives. Splete and Davis (1993) report in The Vocational Education Journal that, "U.S. workers are starting to accept that they probably will change jobs often during their working years. Fluid job markets will demand professional mobility and continual skill acquisition". Many economic, demographic, organizational and social changes in the workplace make life's work ambiguous.

Often these changes in lifestyle or in economic patterns require students other than traditional college students to enroll in postsecondary institutions. Traditional students are broadly defined as students enrolling in college immediately after high school and attending full time until graduation. Exactly what constitutes a nontraditional student has been the focus of much research. Most often age (especially being over the age of 24) has been the defining characteristic for this population (Bean & Metzner, 1985). A report profiling undergraduates enrolled in postsecondary institutions characterized nontraditional students according to a number of attributes commonly associated with nontraditional students (Horn & Carroll, 1996). These included nontraditional enrollment choices such as delaying enrollment or attending part time, as well as characteristics such as being financially independent, having dependents to support, or working full time while enrolled.

Most often students in personal or economic life transitions seek additional education in the form of community or four year colleges. Adults now make up at least 50% of higher education enrollments (MacKinnon - Slaney, 1994). Moderately nontraditional students - primarily older-than-typical, attending part time, and financially independent - increased from one in four undergraduates in 1986 to nearly one in three in 1992 (Horn & Carroll, 1996). Brazziel (1990) noted, "Put simply, adults are the fastest growing segment of all the population groups in higher education" (p.116). The average age of the community college student is 32 (Community Colleges: General Information and Resources ERIC DIGEST 9404). Many of these institutions are unprepared to handle the demands from this influx of new students. As a result, students are sometimes not integrated successfully either academically or socially into the college setting. Not only are colleges unprepared to handle this influx of students, but often students are unprepared to handle the demands of college life. Considering all adults as a homogeneous group is just as misleading as considering all traditional freshmen as a homogeneous group.

The transition from high school to college is often difficult for incoming freshmen; however, it came be even more traumatic for nontraditional students. Nontraditional students need support services different from traditional college students. Most colleges offer orientation programs to assist traditional college students, but few are prepared to assist students other than traditional students. Communication between adult educators and students should include what to expect from college and industry; ideally, this communication would continue even after students enter into post secondary institutions. To help adults become successful students, adult educators and colleges can help nontraditional college students by: [1] providing counseling services specific to the needs of adult students; [2] giving personal attention to this ever growing post-secondary student population; [3] advising students on how to use prior experiences and become better prepared to enter college; [4] helping to foster better communication with industry and schools that are preparing students for job transitions.

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Higher education institutions that have specific counseling services for adults who are seeking to train or retrain provide needed services for students, but unfortunately few institutions meet these needs. Postsecondary institutions have traditionally been thought of as places to explore thoughts and ideas rather than to train for jobs. However, more college level skills are being required of job seekers because the skill level required for most jobs has increased drastically. Most colleges do not have counseling that is specific to adults who have limited time to complete requirements, or who do not always understand what is going to be required in the workforce for them to be able to use their degrees. Adult Basic Education programs and GED preparation programs may or perhaps should have provided counseling services specific to the needs of nontraditional college students; ABE and GED educators can provide much information about what is effective for adult students. Many of the skills required for college are the same type of skills students will need to be successful in the workforce. Preenrollment counseling can establish expectations and give a sense of the university community (Cullen, 1994).

Adult learners may get frustrated early by lack of progress, or often they are not given enough information before enrollment to know when to expect change and what they must do to achieve it (Hamann, 1994). Colleges often try to fit all enrollees into the same counseling and guidance services. Hoyt and Lester (1995) surveyed 1046 adults and found that 40% turned to family or friends for counseling; 37% talked to counselors outside the college, and only 30% discussed career choices with school or college counselors. Several college programs have instituted intervention strategies, such as orientation programs and mentoring programs to provide students with information needed to succeed. Specific information on these programs can be found by clicking


Adults need a lot of personal attention from the postsecondary institutions and from adult education programs during their transition to college. Many adults are impatient and see their time to complete their education as limited. Since colleges are facing cutbacks, this puts additional restrictions on the time-conscious adult. For example, many courses require prerequisites or sequenced courses which are not offered all semesters, so careful scheduling is required. Often returning adults become frustrated when courses that they need are not offered, or when they lack the skills to complete a course, knowing it will cost them not a semester, but often a year or more to complete sequences. Nontraditional students become frustrated when they cannot finish their course of study in the time that they originally planned. Most part- time enrolled nontraditional students felt that it would take eight years or longer for them to complete their degrees. This is a long time to have a goal in mind and many intervening factors affect college decisions.

The drop-out rate is higher for part-time students than for full-time students; the drop-out rate for part-time nontraditional students is 85%, compared to 30% for traditional age students (Brawer, 1995). These adult students most often see themselves as workers first, and students as second or sometimes third. The Project for Adult College Education (PACE) is a general education core curriculum designed for working adults. More on the Saturday conferences held in the PACE Program can be found by clicking:

Vanderpool and Brown (1994) found personal contact improved retention. A peer telephone network supported adult students the first two weeks of the term; students commented that this gave them a sense of community. Often adult students who have been given personal attention in an adult education setting feel abandoned when they are not given the same attention at colleges. Perhaps, this transition could be eased if communication between adult educators and students is maintained for a short period once the students have entered college. For instance, at my institution, students who have taken developmental courses have the opportunity meet once a month to discuss transition into regular college classes. This gives them a chance to talk about problems and concerns they have, in addition to maintaining support from the developmental education faculty. If students could maintain contact with a comfortable situation, like a developmental skills program or adult basic education program, then they would not feel so alone in their quest for a degree. GED preparation classes could invite graduates of the GED program to relate college experiences; this would not only help those in the GED preparation course, but it would also help maintain the link to a successful, comfortable situation for the new college student.


A life experience, whether job, family, or other-related, often motivates adults to learn; life experiences are also, in and of themselves, "rich resources for learning" (Knowles, 1980, p. 11). Mezirow and others make a strong connection between life experiences and learning. Adult learners can use lived experiences as a text with which to understand the construction of particular types of knowledge (Brookfield, 1990). Life experiences hold the potential for learning. Students need to be acknowledged and use their prior experiences and prior knowledge in college learning situations.

Constructivist teaching allows learners to give meaning or make sense of their experiences. Fosnot (1996) maintains that constructivism allows learning to be constructed as an interpretive, recursive, building process by learners interacting with the physical and social world. Current life experiences of the adult learner allow them to bring information to the classroom from the business world where they work and from a social world where they have personal life experiences. The nontraditional student's goal is to gather information that will be useful immediately. One method that has been used successfully is that of small group interaction which allows the adult learner to use information in small groups and then the information can be transferred directly to the workplace (Bowden, & Merritt, 1995).

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There is often a lack of communication between colleges and employers and between colleges and other levels of education. It is necessary to improve links with business and industry so education programs will have access to skills information to know just what businesses are expecting of graduates. This is of little use unless the links between colleges and primary and secondary schools are improved because all levels of education need to know what skills businesses expect graduates to possess; it all cannot be accomplished on the college level. Business and higher education require many of the same skills. Many students lack study skills to succeed in college, and this mirrors business concerns about managing time, knowing how to learn, and setting priorities. Personal attributes like responsibility, motivation, honesty, self-discipline, and enthusiasm are considered essential by business and higher education alike.


There is a wide range of abilities in students returning to college. Often students who have been successful in past college experiences return to retrain, but most often students who never thought of college during high school find college necessary to obtain new jobs. Not only do students have a wide range of abilities, but they have varied reasons for attending college. Colleges need to recognize differences in student populations and not attempt to fit all students into the same educational framework. Better communication between industry and educational institutions will prepare students for the jobs available. Education is a lifelong process for reeducation, renewal, and redirection, and colleges must be ready to help adults who are seeking change to succeed.

Accepted 08/28/97

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