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Generational Traits in Adult Student College Retention

To Improve Adult Student College Retention, Understand Generational Traits

by Courtney L. Vien and James M. Fraleigh

For the United States to remain globally competitive, millions more Americans will need college degrees. Future jobs will increasingly rely on the skills that higher education develops, but many of these jobs will remain unclaimed because not enough workers will possess the education necessary to succeed in these positions. Traditional college-age students will not graduate in numbers sufficient to bridge this gap. Therefore, for the American workforce to sustain its high skill level, more adult students—also known as working learners—will need to pursue higher education.

Although most working learners do successfully balance the demands of work, family, and school, as a group their attrition rates are high. Factors such as heavy demands on their time and energy, low-paying jobs, unexpected life events, and rusty academic skills can prevent them from completing degrees. Many adult learners also struggle to fit into institutions designed for traditional, full-time students. As a result, only 28 percent of full-time nontraditional community college students earn degrees within six years (Milam, 2009).

Few researchers have studied the psychosocial issues affecting adult student attrition, even though students’ alienation, dissonance, isolation, and loneliness correlate with dropout rates (Milam, 2009). University of Phoenix Research Institute scholars Debbie Ritter-Williams and Ruby A. Rouse addressed this gap in the research by performing a large quantitative study examining psychosocial factors in the lives of adult students and their possible effect on retention. They also investigated another little-studied area—generational differences among adult students—and tracked how sources of social support vary among three generations of nontraditional students.

What Generational Differences Revealed

Ritter-Williams and Rouse used the ages of study participants and descriptions from the literature to divide their subjects into four cohorts: Silents (born 1925–1942; 0.4 percent of the sample), Baby Boomers (1943–1960; 13 percent), Generation Xers (1961–1981; 49 percent), and Millennials (born after 1981; 38 percent). They determined significant intergenerational differences on 15 out of 16 study variables. Some of the most salient differences included the following:

Millennials struggle most with psychosocial issues, being more likely than Boomers or Generation Xers to respond emotionally to schoolwork challenges, perceive a lack of time or support, and worry about developing or maintaining relationships.

Associate’s degree students report fewer psychosocial problems than bachelor’s and graduate students, even though they lack confidence in their intellectual ability and clarity about their academic goals. As they ascend the academic ladder, they experience less anxiety about their intellectual ability and more clarity about their goals.

Students tended to experience more psychosocial issues the longer they were out of school.

Psychosocial issues negatively affect retention, with significant correlation noted between how strongly a student experiences each issue and the likelihood he or she will not continue to take classes.

Different cohorts rely on varying sources of support. Millennials reported relying on friends and significant others most often, whereas Boomers and Generation Xers were more likely to rely on their children and their instructors. Students who reported a likelihood to continue in college tended to credit faculty and spouses or significant others as major sources of support.

Source: Ritter-Williams, D., & Rouse, R. A. (2011). One Size Doesn’t Fit All. Manuscript in preparation.

Helping Adult Students Complete Degrees
Although Ritter-Williams and Rouse continue to analyze study data, preliminary findings illustrate why working learners should not be viewed as a homogenous group. Students’ needs differ based on the degrees they pursue, their generation, and their stage of life. The full report, to be published by the University of Phoenix Research Institute in fall 2011, will help faculty and staff who serve working learners understand these students’ psychosocial needs design better counseling and support services and improve adult student retention.

Milam, J. (2009). Nontraditional Students in Public Institutions: A Multi-state Unit Record Analysis. Retrieved from http://highered.org/NontraditionalStudentsinPublicInstitutions.pdf

Learn more at www.phoenix.edu/institute.
Courtney L. Vien and James M. Fraleigh write on a wide range of topics for the University of Phoenix.

Posted by The League for Innovation in the Community College on 09/26/2011 at 4:49 PM | Categories: