Challenges and strategies of an older demographic
By Cazzy Lewchuk, Staff Writer
A “mature student” is generally defined as an adult enrolled in any post-secondary program. The definition varies in British Columbia depending on the institution and, sometimes, the circumstances of the student’s admission. Applying for post-secondary education as a mature student is a different category than applying as a regular full- or part-time applicant. While standards vary, every post-secondary institution in British Columbia has attendees who qualify as “mature students.”
Some institutions define a specific minimum age or criteria to qualify: as old as 23 or even as young as 17, or if the student in question has been out of school for a full year. Some colleges or universities, in fact, require the applicant to have been out of school for a minimum amount of time to be considered as a mature student. They may also require a high school diploma and/or completion of English 12 or an equivalent. This separates mature students from transfer students: a 23-year-old applying to Simon Fraser University with 30 previous transferable credits would be distinct from another 23-year-old who has no post-secondary education. The former is a transfer and the latter a mature student.
Mature students are a very diverse group, with no two in the exact same situation. They have a wide range of ages, life experiences, and enrollment reasons. In general, mature students are distinct because of their admission standards and ages, but their diversity may be greater than other, traditional students.
In many ways, mature students are identical to the ones who attend college right out of high school. They take the same courses, go to the same campuses, and have the same stresses and strategies for studying. However, the differences that affect their situations and schooling can be vast and cause a significant separation from their younger peers. Many mature students have part-time or full-time jobs, sometimes even careers, which they balance between schooling. They are more likely to live away from their parents, particularly at institutions that do not provide student housing. Some may even have spouses, children, and families of their own who are reliant on them for support. Balancing all of these duties can, and often does, lead to significantly higher challenges for these students due to the increased workload.
On the other hand, there can also be certain advantages to being a mature student. They have a larger degree of life experience, which they can often apply to their studies. Mature students usually have a firm direction in where they want their studies to go, and can be much more dedicated in their roles than their younger counterparts. Studies show that when mature students leave their studies prematurely, it is much more often due to outside factors like family or employment, rather than poor grades or discouragement.
Mature students pursue education for a variety of reasons. And, while every situation is different, they all have one thing in common: they are returning to the education systemafter having been away for a period of time. Some of them haven’t been to school for many years, and must learn and adapt to the changes in lifestyle and technology associated with education. Some may be taking programs or courses to meet a specific need in their careers, to upgrade their diploma, or to learn new skills. In fact, many already have previous degrees or diplomas, and are simply returning to their education for necessity or even pleasure. Another common reason is that they took time off earlier to do different things, such as working, travelling, volunteering, or finding themselves. Some may have social or family obligations as their reason for returning to school such as wanting to set a good example for their children, satisfying their parent’s wishes to pursue higher education, or upgrading their careers for better salaries to support their kids. Many immigrant students also fall under the mature category, pursuing education in Canada to advance themselves, or to make up for education received in their home country not recognized in this one.
Many schools in BC—particularly the highly prestigious ones—are difficult to access for mature students. UBC requires the student to have been out of full-time studies for at least four years, and in addition to that, they may only apply for certain programs. SFU and North Island College have the highest age requirement for mature students in the province at 23. SFU and NIC, along with Emily Carr and UNBC, require their mature students to be Canadian citizens or permanent residents—making immigrant access difficult in some cases. It is also stated on the websites of these institutions that preference is given to students with existing post-secondary credits. A mature student seeking to go to college for the first time may have a lot of trouble enrolling in these schools. For these reasons, in addition to financial and flexibility factors, mature students often seek education at institutions like Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Langara College, and Douglas College.
At Douglas College, mature students are defined as anyone aged 19 or over on the first day of classes, or 17, if the applicant has been out of school for a year. A high school diploma is not required for admission in the mature student category, however, proficiency in English or a completion of English 12 or equivalent is required. This waived requirement separates mature students from general admission as students not qualifying in the mature category require secondary school graduation to qualify.
Last summer, a $30,000 bursary tailored for mature students was announced by the Douglas Student Union in conjunction with the Douglas College Foundation. The annual Douglas Students’ Union Mature Student Bursary is awarded to one or more students who demonstrate a financial need, with a preference given to mature students over the age of 24. Financing their education can be a particular challenge for mature students, as they often have more expenses than their younger peers depending on their living or family conditions.
Douglas College offers a variety of programs and options in their educational opportunities—everything from four-year degrees to specialized continuing education and skill programs. This variety, along with cheaper fees, accessibility, and flexible class times, makes Douglas significantly more attractive to mature students. Over 75 per cent of enrolled credit students at Douglas in Fall 2013 were over the age of 19, with 29 per cent over the age of 25. While some of these students were returning to Douglas, it’s clear that mature students are a significant amount of the student body.
Internalized difficulties mature students encounter can involve time conflicts and limited access to resources. These are not necessarily specific to Douglas, but a frequent challenge at any post-secondary institution. For example, a student who works throughout the day, and, therefore, can only attend night classes, might have difficulty accessing the bookstore or academic advising centres, which are closed in the evenings.
Douglas is well aware of its mature student body, and has many resources available to counter the challenges they may face. A Mature Student Orientation is held every August. This orientation allows mature students to discuss and alleviate the problems they face, learn about particular resources and strategies available to them, and meet current Douglas mature students. This is separate from the general New Student Orientation, which is also held in August. Other conveniences hosted by the college include classes hosted in the evenings and on Saturdays, and a library open until 9 p.m. Special counselling services for career, academic, and personal issues can also be arranged for students who have a course schedule outside of regular office hours. Despite these accommodations, lack of access to services remains a significant problem for the mature student community.
In the changing economy and world, education remains higher in demand than ever. An influx of students of all kinds requires accommodation and understanding from all sides, as mature students continue to enroll and graduate frequently across the province.