Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Counselor Education and Counseling Psychology

First Advisor

Dr. Stephen E. Craig

Second Advisor

Dr. Jennifer Foster

Third Advisor

Dr. Karen VanDeusen


Graduate students age 40 and older, defined as “nontraditional” for this study, consistently represent approximately 20% of the graduate student population (United States Department of Education National Center for Education Statistics, 2015). Master’s degree programs in counseling may attract a higher percentage of these students, as some studies suggest that careers in fields such as counseling are sought out by adults changing careers at midlife and later (Bluestone & Melnik, 2010; Schaefers, 2012). These nontraditional students bring to the classroom their own characteristics of age, life stage, and experience, and they have distinct strengths and challenges that set them apart from traditional students.

While a few studies have been conducted that explore the experience of older graduate students, no research has yet investigated faculty perceptions of this group of students and how these perceptions impact faculty teaching practice. In addition, there is a lack of research exploring the experiences of faculty teaching nontraditional students in master’s-level counseling programs. How have counselor educators responded to these students in their classrooms? The purpose of this qualitative study was to describe faculty perceptions of and experiences with their nontraditional (age 40 and up) master’s-level counseling students, and to explore the ways in which those perceptions and experiences shape faculty teaching practices. This study focused on the faculty members who are teaching in these programs, allowing their perspectives and experiences to emerge through open-ended survey questions.

A purposive sample of 52 full-time counselor education faculty was solicited via network sampling. The participants anonymously completed an electronic survey with open-ended questions at a time and location of their convenience. Surveys were analyzed using qualitative content analysis (Schreier, 2012). Major perception-related findings from the study included student characteristics such as (a) respect, (b) experience, (c) enthusiasm, (d) perfectionism, (e) rigidity, (f) greater need for faculty support, and (g) a high number of demands external to the program. The issue of age discrimination also emerged in the survey responses, as several participants reported perceptions of ageist bias, both expressed by nontraditional students toward younger faculty, and expressed by faculty and others toward nontraditional students. Major practice-related findings included (a) providing individual discussion, tutoring, and/or processing when needed, (b) referring to institutional resources such as technology support, and (c) honoring the student’s life and work experience. Responses were sorted by participant age, which revealed a clustering of certain perception-related and practice-related response themes by participant age, suggesting age-based differences in both perception and practice. Implications for future research and practice are also discussed in this study.

Access Setting

Dissertation-Open Access