The National Center for Educational Statistics predicts a 36-percent increase in master’s degree students between academic years 2010-11 and 2022-23. This is more than double the 17-percent increase projected for bachelor’s degree students during the same period. While research on student retention has focused primarily on undergraduate students, more studies are needed to determine the factors that affect the persistence of students pursuing a master’s degree.
In 2011, we looked into institutional and external factors that promoted or hindered the persistence of part-time adult students who completed or were currently matriculated in a master’s degree program at a public state university (The Struggle to Succeed: Factors Associated with the Persistence of Part-time Adult Students Seeking a Master’s Degree). When asked whether they had withdrawn or seriously considered withdrawing from the program at any time, students who answered affirmatively cited three leading reasons:
- Feeling overwhelmed by the workload
- Problems with faculty/curriculum
- Family issues
In this article we explore these factors and suggest how institutions might address them.
1. Overwhelmed By the Workload
Almost 30 percent of respondents cited stressors related to the demands of completing a master’s degree while working full-time and raising a family. Some students did not appreciate the amount of work required in a graduate program, the multiple and competing demands on their time or the level of commitment necessary to succeed.
To help adult students make the transition to graduate work, program advisors must be frank and honest about academic expectations. Students need to know that institutions must conform to the federal definition of a credit hour and that a minimum of two hours of outside class work is needed for every hour in the classroom. During the application interview, one of our program advisors asks prospective adult graduate students, “What changes in your life are you making to be successful in the program?” The reason, she says, is that students will not be able to succeed in a graduate program without recognizing that life changes will be required.
2. Problems with Faculty and Curriculum
The second most-cited reason adult graduate students had for withdrawal was “problems with faculty/curriculum.” Adult students seek a supportive learning environment in which faculty treat them with respect, understand them as adult learners and are fair in their grading. Unfortunately, when students encounter what they perceive as inflexible and/or uncaring faculty or administrators, withdrawal can follow.
A caring educational environment is important to adult learners, but it seems to be particularly critical to the success of first-generation adult college students, even at the graduate level. We found this especially true for graduate students whose fathers had the lowest levels of educational achievement. For this group, “faculty concern for students” was significantly more important than it was for those graduate students whose fathers had higher levels of education. One way of promoting student success is developing an understanding of the individual’s background and educational goals. First-generation adult college students are forging new ground by pursing a master’s degree. As such, they often lack the cultural capital acquired by students who follow in the footsteps of other family members. If expectations, understanding and support cannot come from family members or friends, they must come from elsewhere. Faculty are in a unique position to socialize students. Mentoring and guidance of all graduate students, but especially of first-generation graduate students, will create self-efficacy and increase the likelihood of persistence.
3. Family Issues
The third reason cited for withdrawal was “family issues.” This often overlapped with health and financial concerns, and sometimes exacerbated the feeling of being overwhelmed. In such cases, it’s important for the institution to demonstrate understanding and, when appropriate and possible, flexibility. Students who feel they have someone in the administration or among the faculty to whom they can turn for support are more likely to persist in their studies. Likewise, institutions can encourage the creation of peer groups to support students through rough patches or help them deal with chronic family pressures. Students who have established a strong network of peers, faculty and administrators are more likely to persist in their education despite challenging family issues.
In some cases, there may be no other option but for students to withdraw. Of course, it’s important to stay in contact with them, to show the institution cares about them as people and welcome them back should they return. Part-time adult graduate students face multiple challenges. It’s important at the outset of students’ graduate studies that the institution makes them aware of expectations. It’s equally important for the institution to provide a supportive and caring environment that encourages persistence. A holistic approach to education, in which student needs are recognized and addressed, is required.
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 Hussar, W.J., and Bailey, T.M. 2014. Projections of Education Statistics to 2022 (NCES 2014-051). U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
 Ochoa, Eduardo M. 2010. “Guidance to Institutions and Accrediting Agencies Regarding a Credit Hour as Defined in the Final Regulations Published on October 29, 2010.” U.S. Department of Education, Office of Postsecondary Education http://ifap.ed.gov/dpcletters/attachments/GEN1106.pdf.
 Cohen, M. and Greenberg, S. 2011. “The Struggle to Succeed: Factors Associated with the Persistence of Part-time Adult Students Seeking a Master’s Degree.” Continuing Higher Education Review, Vol. 75: 101-102.
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