Mature students emerging as an increasingly important market segment

The term “mature student” describes a category of learners who undertake a programme of study later in life than those who – typically at 18 or 19 years of age – enter tertiary studies directly after secondary school. As a recent literature review from Higher Education Academy notes:

“The mature learners are differentiated from school leavers in that, prior to [higher education] entry, they have accrued significant life experience either in the labour market or in a domestic setting.”

Mature students – sometimes referred to as “professionals” or “working professionals” – are drawing more attention from educators in recent years, perhaps as a reflection of…

  • institutional or national priorities to expand access to education;
  • institutional or national priorities to address important labour market gaps by providing further education to older students;
  • a growing recognition of the significant market opportunity that these students represent.

Overarching demographic trends in many countries mean that the traditional pool of 18-to-22-year-old students is declining. In those markets, education institutions have to adapt to serve new categories of learners.

Increasing demand for education from mature students

The EvoLLLution blog reports of the situation in the US: “Traditional-age college students – those under age 24 – currently outnumber adult learners, but the gap is closing as more adults pursue education for career advancement or a new career. By 2020, the National Center for Education Statistics projects there will be 10.7 million adult learners and 13.1 million traditional-age learners enrolled in higher education programmes.”

Further, many employers (and many professionals) are placing an increasing emphasis on lifelong learning. At an individual level, this is a function of professional or career development. At the more macro level, it reflects a belief of policy makers and employers alike that there are significant skills gaps in the labour force with respect to the types of jobs available today, and the types likely to be available in the future.

Among internationally mobile professionals, this demand may express itself as an interest in working or studying abroad. For the first time in 2013, the ICEF i-graduate Agent Barometer survey included questions on mature learners, and 51% of agents responding to the survey indicated that they observed “high” or “some” demand for the recruitment of professional clients interested in working abroad. Nearly 70% of responding agents indicated they would be interested in targeting this group further, particularly in sectors such as hospitality and tourism.

Types of mature students

However, mature learners are not a homogenous group and the factors that lead individual students to pursue further studies, and the type of programmes they demand, vary considerably. A noted 2004 study describes six broad categories of mature students, each of which reflects different circumstances and motivations of mature students.

  • “Delayed traditional students” who have chosen to take time out from their education but re-enter through a traditional route;
  • “Late starters” who have undergone a life-transforming event and require a new start;
  • “Single parents”;
  • “Careerists” who are currently employed and aiming to upgrade skills or qualifications;
  • “Escapees” who are employed but want a different career pathway;
  • “Personal growers” who want to pursue education for its own sake.

Customised recruitment efforts

Just as mature students have different motivations for further study, they also have different considerations in choosing a programme or institution and different needs during their studies. As we noted above, these students have accumulated more life experience but they will have often taken on greater responsibilities – whether with respect to professional, financial, or family obligations – and these influence where and how they study and for how long.

Research in the field, combined with observations from educators working with older students, suggest that the following factors are key for institutions aiming to recruit greater numbers of mature or professional learners: flexibility, relevance and support.

Flexibility and convenience. Mature students often place a great deal of emphasis on how the programme is delivered, and value flexibility in both study modes and access to student services at the institution.

Online or accelerated delivery models play an important role with this group, especially for those students who need to finish their studies quickly to return to professional roles or to fulfill family obligations at home.Hence, MOOCs are particularly appealing to mature students.

Similarly, these students tend to demand more detail regarding time requirements and workload needed to complete their programmes. They are highly time-conscious and often juggling many other responsibilities outside of their studies, so clear expectations between learner and institution are key to both the student’s success and the quality of their experience.

Relevance. Most mature students approach further studies with clear personal or professional goals in mind, and they will measure a potential programme, as well as the actual experience of studying, by how closely it fits their interests. Some institutions respond to this requirement by emphasising programmes that tend to be popular with mature students – for example, executive training, leadership, business administration – while others develop targeted programmes specifically for mature learners.

Vanderbilt University, for example, offers a Masters of Liberal Arts and Science (MLAS) programme specifically for adult students. The course content, delivery model, admissions process, and even tuition policy for the MLAS are all targeted to fit the needs of older students.

Support. Mature learners require as much support as younger student cohorts, but often come with different needs than their younger colleagues. International students travelling with family members, for example, will require different support and settlement services. Mature students who have undertaken some previous studies, or who have professional experience directly related to their programme of study, will have a strong interest in prior learning assessments – that is, in opportunities to receive credit for prior learning.

An EvoLLLution blog post notes, “On a personal level, adults want validation that what they have learned through their work and volunteer experiences matters. Similarly, they want to trim the total cost of their education, and with good reason: they are now largely paying for their education themselves.”

Institutional support services also play an important role in student retention with mature students. Because they are often juggling other professional or personal demands, programme completion is a persistent issue and challenge for mature learners. Institutions report that targeted supports that counter these challenges, particularly in the areas of academic advising and programme planning, can help achieve greater completion and retention rates among older students.

Increasing student satisfaction

A recent satisfaction survey of adult learners in the US reinforces many of these points. The National Adult Student Priorities Report, conducted by Noel-Levitz, identifies the following as areas of both high importance and high satisfaction among mature learners at both the undergraduate and graduate levels:

  • “The content of courses within my major is valuable.
  • Nearly all faculty are knowledgeable in their field.
  • There is a commitment to academic excellence at this institution.
  • Degree requirements are clear and reasonable.
  • Faculty are usually available for adult students outside of the classroom by phone, by email, or in person.
  • Registration processes are reasonable and convenient for adults.”

What does that list – and the key factors summarised earlier – suggest in terms of your institution’s capacity to recruit mature students? What enhancements could you make to your programmes or services to better target adult learners? And how could those steps best be reflected in your recruitment and retention efforts?

Institutions and schools around the world are increasingly asking these questions, and it will be fascinating to watch the emerging trends with respect to the mature student segment – and internationally mobile adult learners in particular – in the years ahead.



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