Counseling the Adult College Student

by Erskine S. Walther, M.A., M.B.A. and William F. Ritchie, M.S.


The unique counseling needs of adult students are often overlooked by campus counseling programs. Colleges and universities may consider adult learners' needs covered in other areas, since adult students are part of every other subgroup of students on campus such as minority, international, women, or learning disabled.

Farmer (1971) points out five differences between adults and youth which are important for counselors. First, education is often a secondary consideration for adults who have many other competing responsibilities. Adults want this fact recognized and they want to be dealt with as adults. Second, adults have valuable experiences which add to the educational process; they want the opportunity to bring these experiences to their learning. Third, adult learners want to be able to immediately apply what they've learned. Fourth, the adult is likely to be enrolling due to life transitions. Lastly, adults are self-directed and generally more motivated to achieve because they have specific objectives in mind.

It is helpful to note some specific strategies for counselors dealing with adult learners. One of the first issues which may arise in counseling an adult student is that of anxiety. Many adults fear they will be slower than their younger classmates and will fail in the classroom. It may be helpful to point out as Brookfield (1986) does that adults are able to learn as well in their 40's and 50's as in their 20's and 30's if they can control the pace of learning. This may require the student taking a part-time academic load. Also, the counselor can work to influence institutional offerings of self-paced courses and study skills classes.

In addition to initial fears upon entering college, adults may also be grappling with life cycle transitions. Common motivators for adult students entering college are life change events (Moore, 1992). The counselor should assure students that they are not the only ones experiencing this transition. Issues involving self-esteem may also need to be discussed. The practitioner should strive to make programs and services for traditional college students responsive to transitioning adults (Knox, 1977).

Another issue practitioners should be prepared to address are pressures created because of family responsibilities. A research project at the University of Glamorgan highlights this need; a quote from a second year adult learner: "I can't give my life to the course because I have a family. I have a home. You can't just say that's it for three years" (Horle and O'Donohoe, 1993, p. 9). Family issues can present a greater barrier to achievement for women who often shoulder more responsibilities at home. Counselors need to be aware of these demands (Solomon, 1991). Students should be made aware of possible reactions of their spouses, both at entry and later as the newness of the experience wanes. Students should expect to grow personally which can place strain on a marriage, especially if spouses become jealous of either the growth they observe or if they sense alienation. Because of these issues, some institutions offer orientation programs for spouses.

Career counseling for adults may involve either choosing a career or changing careers. Career change is one of the most common reasons adults enter college, and counselors should strive to help the student "understand a variety of influences in his life that have led him to his present work and study role; to re-evaluate his work role in light of his more mature, realistic appreciation of his potentials against the opportunities now available to him in a demanding, complex society' (Farmer, 1971, p. 61). Counselors might utilize various inventories which match student interests and/or abilities to specific careers. Another strategy is to take the non-directive approach emphasizing student feelings and attitudes leaving the individual toward greater self-direction (Farmer, 1971). In either case, students will expect career counselors to be knowledgeable in areas such as current and future job markets, appropriate majors for specific careers, and community resources for finding jobs.

Another area many adult learners seek counseling in is decision-making. Decision-making becomes important as adult students begin to set goals for their future. Perhaps they are considering a marked change in their career path and need to know how to sort out their priorities. They may ask themselves numerous questions. Do I give my family less time now in exchange for greater career opportunities? Is career that important for me? How important are material things? Is it reasonable for me to pursue this degree at my age?

One final counseling area worth noting is personal counseling. Many adults are hesitant to seek personal counseling. Even so, Farmer (1971) suggests emphasizing short-term counseling which might be less threatening to adults and less time-consuming for their busy schedules. Secondly, the counselor should be knowledgeable about when to refer students for further counseling and about the campus and community resources available.


Brookfield, S.D. (1986). Understanding and facilitating adult learning.
San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Farmer, M.L. (1971). Counseling services for adults in higher education.
Metuchen: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.
Horle, P. and O'Donohoe, S. (1993). Addressing the counselling and guidance needs of mature students.
ERIC document: ED367814.
Knox, A.B. (1977). Adult development and learning.
Washington: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Moore, L. (ed.). (1990). Evolving theoretical perspectives on students, Number 51.
San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Solomon, K.S. (1991). Impact of older students on higher education in the United States: 1945-1985.
ERIC document ED331446.



Erskine S. Walther, M.A., M.B.A., is a Ph.D. candidate in higher education administration at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. His research interests include student satisfaction and retention, and economics of higher education.

William F. Ritchie, M.S., is a Ph.D. student in educational psychology and measurement at Cornell University. His research interests include attribution theory and explanatory style, and college student academic performance.

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