Date of Award

Spring 2-25-2018

Document Type


Degree Name

PHD - Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Terrence Keeney

Second Advisor

Donna San Antonio

Third Advisor

Alan Mandell


Although millions of adults with a high school diploma or GED need and want to further their education by attaining a postsecondary credential, the majority do not succeed. It is widely known that marginalized adult learners arrive at college academically underprepared and that they face numerous barriers to participation once they enroll. But very few studies look at adults’ life experiences, assets, and perspectives on college before they enroll—when they are still “at the college door.”

This qualitative study explores the stories of ten women (ages 29-56) in pre-college transition classes in the Northeast US, and how their familial, school, work, and other experiences influence their aspirations and thoughts about college. Data consist of nineteen semi-structured, narrative interviews of one to two hours in length, biographical timelines, and demographic surveys. Findings show that the participants experienced significant trauma and/or adversity throughout their lives, and that they hope that attaining further education will result in less stressful lives and more satisfying work. The reality of college, however, was hidden behind “a curtain.” Other findings demonstrate participants to be thinkers and learners with diverse interests and experiential knowledge. Together, these findings suggest that aspiring adult college students have great vulnerabilities and strengths, both of which have been underexplored in previous research.

Recommendations are provided to help adult and higher education practitioners better support academic newcomers on the threshold of college. By acknowledging the realities of learners’ daily lives and by adjusting pedagogical and institutional practices, educators and institutions have the power to improve transition initiatives while addressing educational justice in a society increasingly divided into the “college haves” and the “college have-nots” (Carnevale, Jayasundera, & Gulish, 2016).

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 4.0 License.



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