Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Paul A. Attewell

Subject Categories

Education | Sociology


adult undergraduates; higher education; life course; mixed methods; stratification


In modern American higher education, people ages twenty-five and older account for nearly forty percent of all undergraduates. Though neglected by scholars, these students and their experiences are both important in their own right and can help shed light on the broader world of non-elite postsecondary education. In this dissertation, I combine qualitative and quantitative methods to address central questions relating to college-going among adults. I draw on data from a nationally-representative longitudinal study (the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, 1979 cohort) and from in-depth interviews with thirty-six adult undergraduates in order to explore factors that lead students to drop out of college and to enroll at older ages. I utilize sequence analysis techniques to investigate the impact of non-standard college-going patterns on other aspects of the transition to adulthood, event history analysis to identify the proximal and distal correlates of adult enrollment, and both fixed-effects and marginal structural models to estimate the impacts of college participation and completion in adult years on wages and benefits. My study indicates that a substantial portion of adults are motivated to attend college because of insecurity or poor conditions in the non-baccalaureate labor market, but that adults who do enroll tend to benefit by doing so, and that women in particular benefit substantially from completing a bachelor's degree past age twenty five.