Mature students often misunderstood

Mature university students face unique challenges managing finances and balancing their lives


An older student contacted me with some rather specific questions and concerns about OSAP. I won’t repeat them here and I’m still seeking clarification from her on some points, but she wrapped up with a very significant question:

How can I bring awareness regarding the financial difficulties of mature students, and undo common assumptions of mature students?

Bringing awareness is really just another term for advocacy. It’s a topic that’s near and dear to my heart and I wish I could draw a clear roadmap for it, but I can’t. There are many different opinions about what constitutes effective advocacy and how to go about doing it. But I can, at least, give you a sense of where to start.

One of the things that hampers mature students in advocating for their needs is that they are very often invisible – even to each other. You may think you are alone but it simply isn’t true. It’s very common for older students to be in university today. But assumptions persist, and even older students are susceptible to them. They see students in their late twenties and early thirties and think they just look a bit mature for their age. They pass each other in the hall and assume that older person must be a professor or another employee of the university. Not until two mature students are actually sitting next to each other in a classroom do they tend to acknowledge each other as such, and quite often that just doesn’t happen. So mature students remain ignorant of each other.

One of the things I did at Univerity of Toronto Scarborough was arrange a meeting among mature students on campus. We had perhaps a dozen show up at the original meeting. It was really quite an eyeopener for everyone involved, including myself. Shared experiences around balancing home life and school, navigating the university environment, adapting to new technology, and more. Everyone left the meeting feeling much less alone in his or her experiences at school. I wish I could tell you that this group shook the foundations of the university and changed everything. Frankly, I don’t know. I left the group to its devices and moved onto the next thing. But I know they had big plans. And I know that at very least they made new friends.

To advocate on a local level, you need to have a common voice. That could be a simple as forming a mature students’ organization – which is almost certainly as easy as filling out a form. Generating participation is harder, especially among busy people. But in my experience there is a real hunger among mature students to at least become aware of and to support each other. It may be as simple as a meeting for coffee every couple of weeks. But that can still be a big deal.

For help with organizing I’d suggest your first stop should be your local students’ union. I know it can seem strange turning to teenagers and early twenty-somethings for help. But they really know the most about organizing on campus. They have the resources to help you promote your activities. And if your student union is worth spit they’ll appreciate the value of having mature students advocating for their needs along with everyone else. They may be able to help with advancing your issues too, once you know more clearly what they are.

I know I’m making this sound like a lot of work. Unfortunately, all advocacy rather assumes there’s at least someone willing to get a ball rolling and give it some momentum. But I think if you can at least put in enough time and effort to get a small collection of older students in a room together you’ll find there’s energy enough to keep the thing moving. Bring a pad and paper and you’ll be automatically in charge of the agenda. Free food, incidentally, gets everyone out. Even older students. Though I’ve found older students are more fond of veggies and dip and coffee than pizza and soda.

If you can at least reach the point where some group exists (and I genuinely just mean a dozen people with common concerns who are able to sit in a room together) you may well be amazed at how fast people start paying attention. At my initial meeting with mature students, the Vice-President and Principal of the university showed up on his own initiative. He was that eager to meet with people. Universities love older students. They may not be great at accommodating them, but they’ll definitely want to listen.

I could continue on with strategies and discussion about mature student issues. They go far beyond financial concerns, which was the initial question. But really the best advocacy happens before the problem even occurs. You simply need to convince people that you’re watching and train them to think of you. When policies are being drafted and plans are getting made, someone at the table (even if you aren’t there) is likely to say, “yeah, and how does this affect mature students?” If you can reach that point, where the question simply becomes a routine part of analysis, then you’ve won. It really isn’t an impossible goal either. Responsible authorities routinely ask how their plans affect minorities of various sorts. You just need to get your own minority profile on that list.

Everyone tends to think in terms of the younger undergraduates, straight out of high school. All of the information is geared towards them. Very often there are special rules or exceptions for older students and the issues that affect them, but you really have to dig to find them. I’m going to call this information bias. And it’s a real problem.

Students are very often ill-informed or under-informed about their rights and the resources available to them. Often they rely on informing one another rather than learning from websites, handbooks, etc. So when you take mature students you’ve got a lot of factors against them. The information is harder to find in the first place. They may be less savvy with technology and websites, where the information is often found. And they may not know any other mature students to share what they’ve learned.

The student who originally contacted me was, I think, less than perfectly informed about what is available to her as a mature student. But that of itself is a big problem. Even a few vocal advocates can help correct this information bias, both by demanding that the authorities make information relevant to mature students more obvious and accessible (perhaps even centralized!) and by disseminating it to other mature students. The list of potential issues is very long. Daycare bursaries. Family benefits in health and dental plans. Issues around assets and how they affect financial aid. I can’t even begin to list them all. But the surest way to learn about all this is from other students who are also affected. And older students, in my experience, make damn fine advocates. Even on a fragment of the time available to their younger peers.


Questions are welcome at jeff.rybak@utoronto.ca. Even the ones I don’t post will still receive answers, and where I do use them here I’ll remove identifying information.

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Mature students often misunderstood

  1. Excellent note, Jeff.

    There is some good news, however. At many campuses across Canada, either the student union or the university itself has recognized the specific needs of part-time and mature students, and established either groups or centres for them. And in some cases, part-time and mature students have stand-alone student associations of their own.

    Some examples:







    There’s more I’m sure, but that was just what a cursory search on the web came up with.

  2. Thanks Sean, for those links. I especially like the one for ACMAPS, and it looks like quite the substantial effort they’ve got going on there.

    In general terms, I always encourage people to become involved in existing efforts rather than reinvent the wheel. So to anyone who is concerned about mature student issues, I would definitely add to look for an existing organization before starting one of your own. I’ll also note that student organizations wax and wane, and sometimes disappear entirely. It’s sad but true. So be alert to the possibility that you may find the shell of some effort that’s dried up in recent years, or the ghost of an old website, etc. Don’t let that get you down. It’s a part of student life. Also be aware that part-time student issues do not necessarily equate directly with mature student issues, though of course there’s traffic and an natural association between the two.

    Thanks again Sean.

  3. This is a great idea. As a mature student who will be graduating in the fall, I know how much help a resource like this could provide.
    However, most mature students are unable to participate in this type of activity due to employment or family commitments, and institutions tend to concentrate their attention and resources on ‘direct from high-school’ students. Most mature students must work to earn the entire cost of their tuition as well pay for living expenses, since there are few scholarships available to mature and part-time students, and the Canada Student Loans program is not designed to assist people in these groups.

    The difficulty in starting or maintaining this type of society is that many mature students usually have little or no time to dedicate to such activities: School IS their extra-curricular activity, and coursework quite often takes up any ‘spare time’ that they have.

    It would be beneficial if the Institutions themselves could see the value of this group of students and provide some acknowledgment, assistance and guidance for them.

    Thanks for writing on this. I am sure that any attention drawn to the subject will be beneficial.


  4. ACMAPS is a new initiative at York that is based in part on the advocacy done by YUMSO – the mature students group I founded in 2004. I also worked their as an advisor and helped get them a good start.
    Together, both organizations cover the academic and social needs of mature students on both Keele and Glendon campuses. Starting up the organization was easy. Building it was a lot of hard work. Now we have special orientations, meetings, social gatherings, our own office, a service office (ACMAPS), and a much higher profile. After all, those 25 and up make up about 20% of the student body.


    YUMSO now has over 600 opt-in subscribers to the e-newsletter and many more read our bulletins on our website. We also have a facebook site for those so inclined.

    Mature students do make a difference. My work as a mature student was profiled in YorkU magazine in April 2008.


    I strongly encourage anyone thinking of going back to school – any school – for fun or for career advancement to do so. Do your homework first. It’s a different world out there.


  5. Hi Janet

    I entirely agree with you. There is a tendency to play immediately to straight-from-highschool students. And I am appreciative of the demands on the time of mature students. What I balk at, however, is the assertion that the “institutions themselves” might better consider the needs of mature students, and should somehow become aware of these needs without the actual participation of mature students.

    Maybe I take a simplistic view of such things, but for me these institutions are simply groups of people, with differing needs, motives, and perspectives. If mature students don’t even come to the table it’s very hard to expect that people who don’t share their experiences will simply intuit the barriers they face, or leap to the right conclusions about what might help them. The initial note that prompted this piece, for example, contained several misconceptions about what is available for mature students in terms of financial aid. The problem wasn’t a lack of consideration (at least not entirely) but rather a lack of effective communication. And who is going to know how to better communicate with mature students, if not mature students? It isn’t as though anyone is trying to hide the information right now.

    I hope I’m not presenting this as though I expect mature students to set up their own fully-fledged societies, or else picket and petition to insist their demands be met. I’m just talking about enough initiative to get some mature students in a room so that they can articulate what their needs actually are. And in my experience, there’s simply no substitute for that – no matter what the group at issue may be. Queer students need to come to the table because a bunch of straight people (or even queer non-students) can’t guess at their needs. Ditto for students with AccessAbility needs. Ditto for, well, just about everyone.

    I know it isn’t easy, and a properly receptive administration should respond to mature students in a way that minimizes their need to organize formally. And I guess part of my point is that I’ve found this does, in fact, tend to happen. Mature students frequently enjoy truly amazing access to the upper tiers of the administration, just as soon as they organize even lightly. But yeah, someone still has to show up to that meeting.

    I’ve known some truly remarkable older students in my time. It only takes a few. But I’d encourage all those who may doubt the effectiveness of these efforts to at least give them some kind of try. Maybe things should happen of their own accord, but they don’t. Not for anyone. I hope, at least, mature students might realize it can be a lot easier than it might seem. But it does still take some effort, I admit. And time is stretched thin.

  6. Dear Jeff,

    All of us in ACMAPS (Atkinson Centre for Mature and Part-time Students) were extremely pleased to see that our website and activities made a positive impression.

    York University has a long and distinguished history of offering courses and support services for mature and part-time students, first through what was formerly called Atkinson College, and now on a pan-university level. Student demographics have changed substantially from the time when the majority of mature and part-time students at York attended Atkinson College. Today, these students can be found in all Faculties and programs at York. While some adult learners find it most most convenient to study on a part-time basis, a substantial number register at York as full-time students.

    With these changing demographics, York recognized the necessity of supporting mature students across all Faculties of the University, and ACMAPS was established to provide a pan-university physical and philosophical home for mature and part-time students. Our mandate includes raising awareness of issues that affect mature and part-time students across the university, advocating on their behalf, as well as leading and facilitating initiatives responding to the needs of these students. These intiatives include orientation programs for mature students as well as ongoing academic support programs and advising.

    Mature students at York U have a tradition of contributing enormously to the success of their community through their involvement in student organizations and peer mentoring programs. The York Association of Mature Students (YAMS) was active as a social group for many years and more recently YUMSO has provided a focal point for student community. Many mature student alumni have remained involved through the years as peer mentors through the Atkinson Student and Alumini Affairs (STARS) unit.

    Mature students make enormous contributions to the academic community and classroom, and we are grateful that this important constuituency is receiving the attention and recognition they deserve.

    Matthew Peattie, Ph.D.
    Associate Director
    Atkinson Centre for Mature and Part-time Students
    York University
    111 Central Square
    4700 Keele St.
    Toronto ON Canada M3J 1P3
    Tel 416 736 5770 Fax 416 736 5787

  7. Thanks so much, Matthew, for your kind words. Thanks also to Edward for contributing to this discussion, who got his comment in above my last one but I missed it while I was responding. I definitely think mature student issues need far more attention and I’m glad to help contribute to that.

    I see this as a two-part issue. First, there are certainly times when mature students are not properly factored into programming, policies, and institutional design. Second, there are frequently times when mature students are factored in, but because of the “information bias” I describe, where all the up-front info seems to apply to more “typical” students, they don’t know about the programs and rules that exist to help them. And a program that no one can access does no one any good.

    The solution is some combination of visibility and advocacy. I love it when I see that happening, and I’m glad to encourage it however I can. As issues occur to you that you believe might be the subject of a posting here, or needful of some exposure, by all means please let me know.

  8. How do we know that this article and the comments that came with it are of value (and probably getting a lot of hits for macleans.ca)?

    Erin or Jeff got the article its own picture! :)

  9. Pingback: “You’re not a mature student, just a graduate student” : Macleans OnCampus

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