On Campus

"You're not a mature student, just a graduate student"

Is there really such a thing as a "mature student" in grad school?

I just had another question about mature students and financing. One thing immediately struck me. This student referenced her status as a mature student in the context of a masters program. And my first thought was, “huh? You’re not a mature student, you’re just a graduate student!”

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I admit that’s an example of bias on my part, and I’ve been thinking through the assumption ever since. When I say “mature student” in context of university I implicitly think of an older student who is pursuing undergraduate studies. Once a student is into graduate study there is a wide variation in age already. A fair percentage of graduate students are returning to school after being out for a period of time. And so I guess it never occurred to me there even was such a thing as mature student issues at the graduate level.

In my defense, I’m pretty sure my view is typical. Graduate programs tend to assume their students are adults, and whether in their early to mid 20’s or early to mid 40’s (or otherwise) their concerns and experiences are roughly the same. Probably that view is justified, in most regards. But I wonder if we aren’t seeing some new trends, that may challenge the assumption.

It’s old news that credentialism and what I call the “educational arms race” (in my book) is keeping students in school longer and longer, in an effort to out-qualify their peers and the competition. Many students feel pressured to complete at least the masters if they can. It may well be that this pressure is changing the demographics of graduate study, at least at the masters level. If a significant enough majority of the class are “kids” straight out of undergraduate programs, then the mature students among them may well have more distinct issues, and more distinct concerns.

I am firmly convinced that at some point an adult is just an adult. The concerns of a graduate student with a child will differ significantly from those of one without, but you can have a single parent in his or her early 20’s just as you can have a single, independent 40 year-old in grad school. Those aren’t issues of age anymore; they are issues of other identities and personal characteristics that correlate only loosely with age.

I don’t have answers yet. I put the topic out there for comment. Do we need to talk more about mature students in context of graduate school? Do we need to identify their needs and concerns as a group? Or do we simply continue on the assumption that graduate students are likely to need family accommodation, flexibility for their outside affairs, and the like, and treat them as a whole? To put it another way, if that assumption exists at the moment, is it in danger of eroding, if the class becomes too young?

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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