Mature students face barriers to university engagement

It is always a struggle for individuals to transition from high school to university, but for mature students, the transition is even more daunting. They are not simply moving from one learning environment to the next. Often, mature students are not trading in their roles as employees and caregivers, they are adding a new one: student.

One difficulty on top of navigating a new system of information – which is admittedly overwhelming – is the inability to engage in the same way as traditionally aged students.

Alexandre Richer-Brulé, a second-year Media Studies student and a Society of Mature Students (SMS) peer mentor said, “One major barrier is that a lot of mature students live off-campus. Because we aren’t all in the same place, like residence, it becomes difficult or daunting to leave home to participate in school activities, (even) socials geared toward mature students.”

The university offers support programs, such as mentorship and a drop-in lounge and study space in the UCC every Friday. It has also held events designed specifically for mature students, particularly as alternative programming to the bedlam that is O-Week. But these events have typically not been well-attended. The exceptions have been events that cater to students and their families or significant others. This indicates another potential barrier – whether it’s lack of childcare or the (understandable) unwillingness to spend even more time away from family.

As one of the student program coordinators for SMS, this is something I’ve experienced first-hand. Since coming to Western in the fall of 2016, I have given up the notion that I could continue to volunteer for every bake sale, math night and field trip at my kids’ school. I’m lucky if I remember to sign the permission slip and get it into the right backpack. I have had to accept that my husband gets to be the one to pick them up, reuniting with their smiling faces while I’m still sitting in class. The last thing I want to do after class is socialize, and I instead choose to rush home in time to eat dinner with my husband and kids. Barriers to my participation would certainly be lower if my family were able to attend more events on campus.

Although her daughter is grown up and independent, mature student Josephine De Wagner, pursuing a diploma in writing, faces other challenges.

Having a previous bachelors degree as her basis of admission, De Wagner’s age is the only factor that places her in the mature student category. She believes the time elapsed since earning (with highest honours) a BA in English in in 1985 is a barrier to applying for a masters degree, having been made to feel that time has lessened the value of her hard work and scholarship.

However, De Wagner does not believe that she is being discriminated against because of her age, because she admits if she had recently completed her bachelors, it would be a different story. “Perhaps if I applied to the MA English program as a ‘mature student’ in the true sense of the word, I would be held in higher esteem. But I refuse to accept that my previous degree has lost its value due to the passage of time,” De Wagner said.

Certainly, these three experiences are different, but there is a common theme: mature students encounter different challenges from the majority population of an institution.

According to the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada in their 2011 publication on higher education trends, “[while] the number of students in this age group has tripled in the last 30 years from 6,000 in 1980 to more than 18,000 in 2010, their share of all full-time undergraduate students has remained at two per cent…Universities are acutely aware of the presence and needs of their older students, [but] enrolment growth is driven by much more rapid increases in traditional youth cohorts on many university campuses.”

While it would be difficult to track how many mature students attend Western and its affiliates, Society of Mature Students flagged approximately 460 incoming students in the 2017-18 year, who were either admitted as mature or transfer students or were over the age of 25. This method is not perfect, and many students fall through the cracks, an issue that extends beyond Western.

Similarly, in a policy paper published last month by Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance on issues affecting mature students, OUSA outlined the major challenges faced by mature students: lack of a clear and consistent definition of what a mature student is, lack of publicly accessible demographic data, barriers to gaining access to supports such as the Ontario Student Assistance Program or other provincial or federal funding because of inaccurate calculations of spousal contributions.

Meg U’Ren, who works in the Student Success Centre at Western, echoed these sentiments, “I think certainly a challenge the Western community faces is knowledge and understanding of who and what mature students are and why they are important to the community.”

The Society of Mature Students offers academic and social support, advocacy and mentorship to mature students. But this programming is helpful to mature students only if it easily accessible to them. Right now, SMS relies on an email list and a Facebook group, where students can find out about events and connect with individuals who may be experiencing similar challenges to reach the community. With no a clear definition of what a mature student is, however, not every student receives emails from the group. Some mature students also find technology a barrier, which creates another layer upon why they might be less engaged.

U’Ren added, “In an ideal world, we’d have a dedicated full-time staff member who just did mature student programing – orientation, mentorship, advocacy, liaising. I think that would level the playing field, but that would be a matter of funding… [At the same time] we need that student voice in the room saying, ‘this is what’s really important’ and to make sure our programming reflects it.

“As we increase our services and put more energy into serving this population, we’ll also attract more students…I’m excited about the time we’re in, but I think that there’s more to do.”

Still, both De Wagner and Richer-Brulé said there are advantages to becoming involved in the SMS community. “I have benefited from mature student programming by making at least one very meaningful connection with another mature student. The Western community could benefit greatly from what I have to contribute if it opens itself to me,” said De Wagner.

This raises a good point. Mature student programming is great, but the lack of integration with younger students increases the divide within the group: those who want specific programming to help them navigate this stage of their academic lives and careers, and those whose aim isn’t to be unique but to find better ways to fit in with their younger peers.

Erin Anderson is a second-year mature student who studies English & Writing. She is also a mother of two and still trying to master the art of juggling