A Phenomenological Study of Adult Learners Navigating the College Application Process

Open Access
Dolet, Nakita Carmen
Graduate Program:
Lifelong Learning and Adult Education
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
May 04, 2018
Committee Members:
  • Adnan A Qayyum, Dissertation Advisor/Co-Advisor
  • Craig Allen Campbell Jr., Committee Chair/Co-Chair
  • Davin Carr-Chellman, Committee Member
  • Kyle Peck, Committee Member
  • David S Guthrie, Outside Member
  • Adult Learners
  • Admissions
  • College
  • Information-Seeking
  • College Application
Despite increasing numbers of adult participation in postsecondary educational programs “much of the research examining the question of ‘access’ to higher education is concentrated on the relatively narrow time horizon immediately after high school graduation (Seftor & Turner, 2002). This includes the body of research specifically related to the shift from paper to online college and financial aid applications. Past studies have explored college and financial aid application experiences for traditionally aged low-income, minority and or first-generation students (Tierney & Venegas, 2009; Venegas, 2006; Perna, 2007). Additional studies investigating the transition to online applications have examined graduate student enrollment with a goal of understanding how access to technology is impacted by race and ethnicity (Poock & Berryhill, 2000). Adult learner experiences are often omitted from or placed in the periphery of discussions about the admissions process. In order to serve adult learners returning to school, it is important to identify what factors impact their access to information and support during the admissions process. Students engaged in the admissions process must often manage applying to a number of schools along with completing the FAFSA. While post-secondary institutions and governmental agencies view Internet-based applications as tools used to streamline the process of applying to school, “institutions [still] need to consider issues of access to technology, as well as differences in student characteristics that may affect how prospective students respond to a more technology-based admission process” (Gifford, Briceño-Perriott & Mianzo, 2005). When we view adult learners holistically, considering their age, occupation, complex social roles, and racial or cultural background we can begin to evaluate how to support adult learners through the application process. As educators, we are tasked with understanding how to support diverse student groups. This responsibility is underscored by the need to develop more inclusive resources that support the unique needs of adult learners as well as their traditionally aged counterparts. Sociological theories about cultural reproduction, often associated with Pierre Bourdieu, and information-seeking models most often used in health-related fields provide a foundation for this study. This study is interested in exploring the adult learners’ experience of seeking and using information while applying to post-secondary programs of study. In addition to the theoretical framework, Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) was used to guide data analysis. The method of analysis resulted in four superordinate themes focusing on demographic factors, comprehensive models of information-seeking, types of capital and additional points of inquiry like social role to examine the phenomenon of applying to post-secondary programs from the adult learner perspective. Data also served as a foundation for identifying fourteen additional subthemes.