Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

J. Beth Mabry, Ph.D.

Second Advisor

Rhonda H. Luckey, Ed. D.

Third Advisor

Betsy Crane, Ph.D.


This study explores persistence and non-persistence among adult undergraduate students with particular focus on these students’ lives, their stressors, their coping resources including academic supports, and their styles of coping. The study approaches the issue of non-persistence not as a personal failure but rather as a consequence of multiple demands (stressors) and limited coping resources that interfere with persistence to graduation. The specific research question framing the study is, ―In what ways are non-traditional adult students who do not earn a degree different from those who do in regard to (a) stressors, (b) social and personal/psychological resources, and (c) types of coping strategies they typically employ (i.e., problem-focused or emotion-focused)?‖ Results point to several differences between persisters and non-persisters that warrant further investigation: 1) academic supports and social integration in the classroom were linked to adult undergraduate student retention; 2) social support from a spouse was found to be significant to married adult undergraduate students in terms of persistence; 3) work-related stressors are a major risk factor in regard to persistence; 4) academic self-efficacy of non-persisters appears to be related to attrition, i.e., lack of confidence in formal evaluations (exams and papers); 5) passive/emotion-focused coping was related to non-persistence. Many factors that influence persistence among adult undergraduate students are beyond the control of colleges and universities. Nevertheless, a better understanding of the challenges faced by these students may inform new and more effective academic support efforts to increase the likelihood of persistence to graduation. The results of this study point to several areas that institutions might address to support adult undergraduate student persistence. They involve preparing students for the challenges they may encounter, making them aware of the resources available to contend with them, and helping them develop skills and plans for coping before problems arise. Several potential interventions are considered.