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Older becoming the new average

By Kim Wilton

I am not 18. Nor have been for several years. So when I decided to return to university and pursue a second degree, it was not the exams or the piles of papers that intimidated me, it was the prospect of being an older student.

Before stepping into my first and second year classes, I was nervous that my age difference would be painfully obvious to my fresh from high school classmates.

Yet, to my surprise, I discovered that I was not the oldest student in the class, sometimes not by a long shot.

Although the average age of an undergraduate student at MUN is 21, look around any class, and you’ll more than likely find a student who is older. In 2007, there were 3,960 undergraduate students who were 24 years or older. That is an increase of 482 students from a decade ago. Students over the age of 24 account for a little more than a quarter of the total undergraduate student population and 80 per cent of all part-time undergraduate students. And their numbers are only going to keep growing.

In our increasingly globalized economy, continuous learning is a key for employment success. For most disciplines, your basic bachelor’s degree doesn’t cut it anymore. Students are delaying entering the workforce to gain more credentials and people who have been in the workforce are returning to university to upgrade their skills, tacking on more degrees, diplomas and certificates.

Academic upgrading is not the only reason for the increased enrolment of older students. There are many students, like myself, whose academic interests have changed and are taking a complete 360-degree turn in their studies. While there are others, who decided to forgo the straight high school to university route and took a few years to travel, work and explore what they really wanted to do with the rest of their lives before continuing their studies.

Another factor in the increased number of older students is the changing demographics in the province. The fact that the number of high school students in the province is declining is not lost on the university administration. In the Strategic Plan and Targets document of 2007, the university has outlined specific goals to compensate for this decline. Several of these goals emphasize increasing the number “non-traditional” and “under-represented” members of the province, such as older students. Meaning that the population of older students is likely going to continue to rise in the future.

Despite these increases in enrolment, many older students battle feelings of isolation when adjusting to university life. In addition to the stress of exams and papers, older students face other concerns that are different from their younger peers. Many juggle the demands of children, and full-time careers. However, MUN offers several services that cater to the specific needs of older students, such as the Students Older Than Average (SOTA) resource centre, that offers support and help to ease the transition to university, services that will probably be expanded in the future to accommodate this growing population.

As the numbers of older students continue to rise, the “traditional” definition of a university student is being re-evaluated and redefined. The average age of an undergraduate student at MUN will shift to north of 21 and perhaps eventually the term “older student” will become obsolete. And I, while maybe slightly biased, welcome these changes. An increasingly diverse student body can only help to enrich the university experience for everyone, regardless of their age.
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