Older Adults in their First Year at University: Challenges, Resources and Support

Topham, P. (2015) Older adult students in their first year at university: Challenges, resources and support. Project Report. University of the West of England. Available Online: http://eprints.uwe.ac.uk/25888


Topham, P. (2015) Older adult students in their first year at university: Challenges, resources and support. Project Report.  University of the West of England.  Available Online: http://eprints.uwe.ac.uk/25888
Topham, P. (2015) Older adult students in their first year at university: Challenges, resources and support. Project Report. University of the West of England. Available Online: http://eprints.uwe.ac.uk/25888
In a recent report prepared by Phil Topham for the University of the West of England (UWE), 22 students aged 30 to 61 complete an open response survey about their challenges, resources, and support at three points in the academic year. The report was prompted by UWE stakeholders out of a recognition that older students represent a diverse and largely neglected population who tend to be low users of student services:

“an early observation was that the Students’ Union shop played a lot of hip-hop but not much Mozart. This stimulated thinking about older students in the university population and their visibility; the low profile of older students was evident from a walk around any of the university campuses” (p. 6)

The university’s neglect of this group was striking in light of the fact that nearly a quarter of the total student population were aged 30 or older. Several significant obstacles accounted for this neglect, in spite of the fact that t he UK has a history (especially since the advent of the Open University in 1971) of promoting higher education among diverse populations:

  1. Limited resources as a result of public sector funding cuts
  2. A shift in the orientation of student support services, away from intensive advising, and toward a problem-focused professional service delivery model that places that onus on students to become familiar with, and actively seek out, services as an extension of self-support
  3. A disconnect between administrative definitions of the ‘mature student’ and well-established lifecycle models of psychosocial development
  4. A tendency in universities to conceive of psychological health in terms of the presence or absence of mental health problems, rather than in terms of the ways in which student satisfaction and feelings of empowerment are a function of the extent to which individuals strengths can be leveraged to cope with stressors
  5. Historically limited use of student support services by mature students, particularly when those students are studying part time

Following a thematic analysis of survey responses, Topham identified two (actually three, but he suggests that the first two could be considered together) general types of challenge that presented obstacles to persistence: (1) difficulties understanding and navigating the university environment (i.e. learning how to ‘do college’), and (2) challenges involved in balancing complex and competing emotional commitments. In spite of these significant barriers, Topham explains, older students typically have the advantage of entering higher education with a well-established “psychosocial resource pool,” and/or a strong determination to achieve academic goals that drives them to seek out and make use of outside resources and supports necessary for success.

“Older adult students may be better equipped to deal with some of the challenges of higher education than their younger peers: coping with multiple stressors; managing emotions; organising time and study commitments; crises of identity and self-esteem. Yet traditional-age students arrive fresh from secondary education, better oriented to learning cultures and methods, more technically proficient, with youthful energy and few other commitments. Both younger and older students have areas of strength and skill, of capacity and resilience; for a university, a learning community, the contribution that is attributable to the diverse life-stages of its students is a significant asset.” (p. 41)

Tophan wisely cautions against generalizing his findings to other institutions. As far as what can be learned more generally from this report, Topham observes that value of the exercise for UWE, recommends the report as an opportunity for other institutions to reflect upon the ways in which they are meeting the needs of their mature student population, and encourages an exploration of mature student concerns in workshops and seminars. The findings of such efforts can be leveraged to produce materials for incoming students that would anticipate and validate likely challenges and point them in the direction of particularly relevant resources.

Tophan’s work is laudable, and provides a wonderful glimpse into the experience of a student population that is not often at the radar for many administrators. What is interesting is that this is a population that is not particularly at risk, and that does not tend to use student services. An understanding of the challenges and strengths that account for the success and resilience of this population not only go a long way in terms of validating the unique experiences of those who make it up, but also provide researchers and administrators with insight into the kinds of skills that are important to deliberately cultivate in students who do not have the perspective that comes with age and experience.