Working adult students' perspectives on persisting in college

Document Type



Doctor of Education (EdD)


Adult Education and Human Resource Development

First Advisor's Name

Douglas H. Smith

First Advisor's Committee Title

Committee Chair

Second Advisor's Name

Patricia Telles-Irvin

Third Advisor's Name

Jo D. Gallagher

Date of Defense



The purpose of this study was to describe and explain working adult undergraduate students' perspectives on persistence in college in order to address the applicability of retention theory to a specific group of college students. Retention of college students is a major concern in higher education where persistence rates have continued to decline for the last 16 years and changing student demographics have influenced enrollment patterns.

A qualitative research design was used. Data were collected through in-depth semi-structured interviews with nine working adult undergraduate students. The participants were selected to include diversity in age, race/ethnicity, family roles, career/work levels, college majors, and educational histories.

Triangulation was performed on data from the interviews, participant data forms, and a research journal. Open and axial coding were used to generate emerging themes. Member checking was used to verify the interpretation of the participants' perspectives. A peer reviewer corroborated the data analysis. Three major themes emerged from the data which explained how the students stayed motivated, engaged in learning, and managed the institutional aspects of college.

Five conclusions were drawn from the findings of this study. First, working adult students described their core experience of college as both positive and negative, creating tensions and often conflicts that influenced their persistence. Second, persistence factors associated with working adult students included personal aspects, such as having clear career/life goals, self management skills, and supportive relationships; learning aspects, such as interactive teaching methods, connections to prior learning, and relevance to career/life goals; and institutional aspects, such as customer service orientation of staff, flexibility of policies and procedures, and convenient access to information. Third, current retention theory was applicable to working adult students. However, working adult students described their experience of academic and social integration differently from that of traditional college students found in the literature. Fourth, findings from this study supported the developmental components of the Adult Persistence in Learning model (MacKinnon- Slaney, 1994). Finally, the study findings indicated a clearly active role required of the institution in the persistence of working adult students by providing flexibility and accessibility in procedures and services.



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