When I started researching this article, I asked a classmate, who is 38 years old and in the first year of their undergraduate degree, to share their story about what some might call an unconventional situation.
“It’ll be a good thing,” I said. “You’ll let other older students know they aren’t alone.”
They agreed that talking about their experiences would probably help other mature students, some of whom undoubtedly feel a common sense of alienation in a school dominated by young adults. But they declined to have their story publicized out of concern that it would only exacerbate the difficulties of integration. It was hard enough to make friends already, they pointed out.
Navigating the trials and intricacies of university is harrowing as an 18-year-old, but can be even more difficult for those in their late twenties and beyond. Starting university at a later age comes with a host of unique obstacles.
Generally, the University of Toronto defines a mature stuhdent as anybody over the age of 25. The Mature Students’ Association (MATSA) extends the definition to include students who have several years of work experience or took time away from formal education, or who have “family responsibilities that the average undergraduate student doesn’t have.”
In 2012–2013, approximately three out of four students enrolled at University of Toronto are between the ages of 18 to 24. Yet despite the approximately 13,000 students who are 25 years and older, the median age of full-time undergraduates is dropping. In 2003, the median age was 21.2; 10 years later, that number had dropped to 20.9.
For part-time undergraduates, the drop in average age is dramatic: students had a median age of 28.1 in 2003, but a decade later, that number had plummeted by five years to 23.1.
Dr. Thomas Socknat, academic director of the Academic Bridging Program — a program that aims to reintroduce mature students to formal education — agreed that students over 25-years-old may find returning to school daunting due to the prevalence of younger peers.
“Returning to education when one is over 25 years of age has its own set of issues,” he says, adding that there’s a “lack of confidence to compete with younger students fresh out of an educational environment,” such as high school.
Susan Murray, a mature undergraduate and treasurer of the Association of Part-time Undergraduate Students (APUS), knows what it’s like to compete with students who are used to being students.
“One of the more challenging aspects of being a mature student has been to compensate for the lack of foundational knowledge that most of my classroom peers possess,” she says. “This requires additional prep time for assignments and tests, along with very intensive study and reading.”
Another life circumstance that is often relevant to mature students is a high degree of family responsibility — whether it involves caring and providing for an aging parent or young children.
“Students who are parents face many challenges,” says Dr. Amy Mullin, vice-principal, academic and dean at UTM. “One of those challenges is financial, because we live in a society where it is typically assumed that parents should bear the overwhelming majority of the responsibility for the costs of their children’s care, at least until those children reach school age,” she adds.
Raising children while on campus is expensive, and perhaps in many cases, cost prohibitive. Mullin points out that there are often waitlists for subsidized, city-run daycares, while childcare centres run by U of T, such as the Childcare Centre on Charles Street West, can charge up to $1,989 every month for infants. And even though the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) provides loan funding for childcare, Mullin says, “the amounts it recognizes are considerably lower than the child care costs many parents must pay.”
“Changes to OSAP to more fully account for average costs for paid care for children at different ages would be a very important way of making it possible for more parents to pursue higher education,” Mullin adds. While on-campus childcare fees at Early Learning Centres are subsidized by levies on tuition — lowering the out-of-pocket cost to $12 per hour for one child under five — Mullin believes that, given declining per-student provincial funding, “governments are the most appropriate source of funding for student parents,” not universities.
The issue of devoting time to family life is also one that is often encountered by older students. Writing papers requires time and concentration, and as Mullin acknowledges, “children’s needs can be unpredictable.” Mullin encourages students to request flexible deadlines if a dependent becomes ill or requires other assistance, but warns that this initiative might be met with resistance.
“Some faculty and students might assume that most of the people taking classes at the university are young, supported by their parents, and do not have considerable family care obligations of their own,” she says.
Since this kind of alienation exists — which leaves student parents “feeling invisible and alone,” as Mullin states — it can be a challenge in itself, and Mullin encourages students to reach out and share their experiences, especially with other student parents.
The Family Resource Centre provides a venue for families at U of T to interact at no charge, and can be a valuable support network for student parents. Students may also consider part-time studies to accommodate family needs, using facilities such as APUS to stay connected with peers.
Even for those mature students who do not have significant family-based demands, the age disparity itself can result in feelings of isolation. There are no university-run centres for mature students, and the student-run MATSA is not equipped to provide the resources and infrastructure necessary to facilitate a smooth transition for mature students struggling to make connections on campus.
A potential age gap should not necessarily deter one from taking advantage of the 800-odd clubs here at U of T. One of the best things a mature student can do, according to Murray, is dive into a variety of extra-curriculars.
“My academic experience has been greatly enhanced through volunteer involvement with campus clubs, societies and as a part-time student representative on Governing Council,” she says.
Murray elaborates that socializing outside the classroom is key to avoiding feelings of alienation. “It is through my campus life experiences where I have strengthened relationships with other mature students and student parents,” she says. “I have built new invaluable skills in the process.”
Murray went back to school at the same time as her adult son — both are enrolled at Woodsworth College. She believes Woodsworth has helped both of them adjust to student life. Although her academic experience has been challenging at times, she says, working towards her degree in art history has been largely rewarding.
“I am fulfilling a significant personal goal,” she says.
Socknat echoes this sentiment explaining that the reasons that compel a mature student to return to school are mostly personal, rather than financial or social.
“Most mature students embark on a general arts and science degree because they want to improve themselves and feel they have missed out on something and crave the learning experience,” explains Socknat. “And sometimes they have their heart set on a specific career that isn’t accessible with a college diploma and feel ready for that commitment.”
“It is about quality of life and not quantity of financial reward,” he adds.
For many, returning to school is an opportunity for personal enhancement and a chance to build a new set of skills, perhaps in pursuit of a career change or other long-time goals. I asked Socknat whether he thought a university degree would increase the employability of older students compared to their younger peers.
“Yes,” he says, “an undergrad degree does help mature students achieve their career goals and perhaps, depending on the individual and circumstances, they may be more employable than younger students because of experience.”
“In fact, most mature students would probably agree that the university experience changed their lives,” Socknat adds.
Murray agrees. “I have faced many serious personal challenges in my quest for a degree,” she says.
Despite the difficulties, she adds, “there is no other place that I would rather be at this stage in my life.”