Exploring Adult Learners' Experiences Transitioning to Higher Education

Open Access
Karmelita, Courtney E
Graduate Program:
Adult Education
Doctor of Education
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
February 29, 2016
Committee Members:
  • Adnan A Qayyum, Dissertation Advisor
  • Adnan A Qayyum, Committee Chair
  • Melody M Thompson, Committee Member
  • David Post, Committee Member
  • Margaret Ann Lorah, Committee Member
  • adult learners
  • transition
  • higher education
  • adult learner barriers
  • transition theory
Abstract Research Topic With increasing adult learner enrollments in colleges and universities, adult learners more than ever require supports and services to help them successfully transition into student life. Transition programs have gained popularity for this reason. These programs are intended to help adult learners enroll in postsecondary education (Alamprese, 2005). The state of the literature on these programs demonstrates a need for more research about the outcomes associated with participation. Previous research on adult learner participation in transition programs is limited in its scope and depth (Valentine, Hirschy, Bremer, Novillo, Castellano, & Banister, 2009). To add to the literature, this study is designed to capture and explore the stories of adult learners enrolled in a transition program to examine their experiences and perceptions. When researching adult learner transition to higher education, I came across numerous studies reporting the challenges and barriers that hinder adult learner success. I also found that the challenges and barriers discussed in recent literature are the same as those described over three decades ago by Patricia Cross (1981). Therefore, this research also aims to explore to what extent these barrier types identified in Cross’s (1981) survey research adequately reflect the experiences of adult learners entering higher education today and to provide an updated account of the obstacles that adult learners face. Theoretical Framework and Method This study is a narrative inquiry shaped by the theoretical framework of Schlossberg’s Transition Theory (Anderson, Schlossberg, & Goodman, 2012) and Cross’s (1991) categories of adult learner barriers. For data analysis, I used the hermeneutic approach as described by Patterson and Williams (2002). I followed this approach to analyze each participant’s narrative. I also engaged in cross-case narrative analysis, determining the similarities and differences between the participants’ narratives. Findings The findings suggest that the connections the participants formed during enrollment in “Transitions Prep” attributed to an overall positive experience for all. The narratives of this study also indicate that the participants’ perspectives of the transition to higher education changed through participation in “Transitions Prep.” Although one participated reported a loss of confidence in her ability to be successful in higher education, the majority of the participants described themselves as having gained confidence. Additionally, the findings of this study imply that adult learners may face challenges not fully addressed by Cross’s (1991) account of adult learner barriers to higher education. Lastly, I found that the stages to self-actualization from Maslow’s (1943) Hierarchy of Needs explain the participant motivations more precisely than the theories used to inform the theoretical framework of this study. Recommendations Based on the findings, I recommend that research on the outcomes of participation in a transition program be conducted. I also recommend that Schlossberg’s Transition Theory and Cross’s (1991) categorizations of student barriers be reconceptualized to give more emphasis on the influence of identity and be reconsidered within the current social context. Additionally, I encourage researchers to contemplate how elements of self-actualization may help to explain adult learner motivations for entering higher education. Furthermore, I suggest additional research to uncover the true impact of funding on transition program development and determine appropriate requirements for program design. For future practice, I suggest that universities and colleges implement research-based supports, including transition programs, to aid adult learners as they attempt to earn postsecondary degrees. In addition, I suggest that higher education institutions be mindful of how aging poses physical limitations for adult learners and consider how to best provide appropriate accommodations for aging adult students.