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Understanding the Needs of Ontario's Mature Students

Since the 2010-2011 academic year, mature students in Ontario have been recognized as a growing segment of the post-secondary population. Despite this growth, this cohort continues to face challenges to post-secondary success. Barriers such as a lack of access to financial aid opportunities, inadequate support services, and the inability to integrate with their campus communities leave mature students feeling underrepresented and often overlooked. With this cohort continuing to grow, it is quite surprising that our sector has not taken the appropriate steps to accommodate their unique needs in a post-secondary environment.

To explore these issues further, last fall I conducted interviews and focus groups with mature students from OUSA’s member campuses. The results of the interviews, to my surprise, were quite consistent between the institutions. The participants of the interviews all identified the same three major themes as key barriers to their success in post-secondary studies: A lack of a standardized definition for what a “mature student” is, a lack of appropriate financial aid opportunities, and insufficient student support services.

The first major concern that the participants identified was a need for standardizing the definition of “mature students” across our sector. Interview participants highlighted how differing definitions created barriers for opportunities to transfer between institutions, as well as placed a hindrance on financial aid opportunities due to the discrepancies between OSAP’s definition and their institutions. When the participants were asked if there was one thing they could change to improve their experience, the overwhelming majority identified this concern.

The second major concern that came up in the interviews was around student support services. The mature students who participated overwhelmingly felt that the current support service system on their campus was not designed in a way that effectively supports students who did not enrol in post-secondary studies immediately following secondary school. From a lack of appropriate childcare facilities to an inability to accommodate mature students who only took evening classes, the participants felt that post-secondary institutions could take steps to ensure that they were expanding their support services in an effort to provide an equitable level of support to their demographic.

Finally, the third consistent concern that participants highlighted was around financial accessibility. The majority of participants believed that the Ontario Student Assistance Program’s (OSAP) funding calculation inadequately factored in the additional financial responsibilities of mature students, such as residential, familial, or childcare costs. Additionally, the participants who had spouses all believed that the spousal contributions portion of the OSAP assessment provided an unfair picture of the student’s financial situation, providing them with less funding than required to complete post-secondary studies. The participants believed that steps could be taken to address these concerns, such as re-examining the Child Care Bursary formula, or eliminating spousal contributions from OSAP assessments.

While these are just three concerns that the mature students who participated in the interviews identified, it must be noted that there is a lack of data in our sector regarding the barriers and challenges mature students in Ontario face. When developing this study, and our full policy paper, it was difficult to develop evidence-based solutions to the concerns that participants had raised. As this cohort continues to grow, our institutions and our sector as a whole must start to collect and publish data on the barriers that mature students in Ontario face. Only then will we be able to start effectively addressing the issues facing mature students in our province.