Successful, female, first-generation, adult learners in a 4-year research university: Their lived experiences

Date of Completion

January 2009


Women's Studies|Education, Adult and Continuing|Education, Higher




Although female, first-generation adult learners continue to enter higher education in record numbers, little is known about the factors that contribute to their successful completion of an undergraduate degree. An especially acute lack of understanding exists about how females with these characteristics succeed at a 4-year research university. As a conceptual basis, this study used a combination of Tinto's (1975) theory of undergraduate student dropout behavior and Gilligan's (1982) model of women's moral development. The study employed a qualitative phenomenological design to ascertain participants' unique and/or shared experience as students. The sample was comprised of eight undergraduate women who were enrolled (at least part-time) at a 4-year research university in the Northeast United States, had at least a Junior standing, were over the age of 25, and were first-generation students. Data collection methods included a brief demographic questionnaire, a semi-structured audio taped interview, which included a response to a hypothetical scenario, and participant reflective writings. Data were analyzed using open and axial coding, and constant comparative methods. The researcher found that successful, female, first-generation adult learners in a 4-year research university had (a) received positive feedback from instructors, which enhanced academic self-efficacy, (b) resolved the "dilemma of choice" regarding role expectations and educational involvement, and (c) developed a profound sense of responsibility for the academic status that would be inherited by the next generation. Knowledge gained from this study can inform administrative procedures and policies that affect this group of adult learners, both in and out of the classroom, and may ultimately increase the likelihood of success of future first-generation female undergraduates. ^