Mature-age Students: Their Motivations and Challenges in Pursuing Higher Education

(This research essay is a partial requirement in the Sociology of Education course.)


An adult acquiring higher education is exceptionally challenging because typical university students are in their early twenties. There are various reasons individuals ceased to attend schooling and become mature-age learners in later life. Because higher education is an expensive human capital investment, many could not afford to enter university right away. However, one of the motivations in going back to post-secondary learning is the high education qualification in the highly competitive labour market, offering a higher salary or income. To earn a professional degree, students surpass the age boundary to have a greater chance for employment or a high-paying occupation, laterally with their professional and personal development.

This paper explores the motivations and challenges among mature-age students’ engagement in university education. This topic, as my research focus, is an interesting sociological subject. It is a thought-provoking topic because they are still motivated to pursue and explore a new career despite mature students’ social position and roles. They might be parents, grandparents, and long-time workers, among others. Alongside their family or work obligations, they still have an earnest desire to acquire knowledge.

This research will inspire the readers, for the typical students in particular, because the mature or adult students’ experiences, motivations, and challenges could encourage and teach them more about resiliency in their current studies. It also shows that studying, particularly in a university, has no specific time and age boundaries. It means that acquiring education is a life-long learning process, depending on one’s motivations, personal resilience, and attitude toward learning.

At least ten pieces of literature, this essay examines mature-age students’ motivations and challenges in pursuing their professional careers. Research on this subject mainly contains qualitative data conducted in Europe, North America, and Australia and based on the sample population’s lived experiences used in the investigations. The chosen scholarly articles are the only basis for my analysis of mature and older university learners’ motivations and challenges.

Literature Review

Mature-age or older students’ participation or re-engagement in higher education is a personal choice or decision. No system supplies specific statistical data to conduct quantitative research; instead, the qualitative method is the most suitable approach in gathering data through participants’ interviews and focus group discussions. Because of this, motivations and risks are the primary focus of most investigations concerning mature-age or adult higher education learners, categorized as ‘non-traditional students’ considering their age, twenty-one years old and over (Jamieson, 2007; Erb & Drysdale, 2017; and Murray, et al., 2010 qtd. Marcaletti, et al., 2018).

In the literature, mature-age and older students common motivations to enrol for university degree are but are not limited to employability (Jamieson, 2007; Woodfield, 2011; Rhijn, et al., 2016; and Marcaletti, et al. 2018) and personal development or enrichment (Jamieson, 2007 and Rhijn, et al., 2016). These motivations appear in diverse scenarios in the participants’ lived experiences. The employability reason reflects the participants’ intention to change job or career by obtaining qualification (Jamieson, 2007; Woodfield, 2011) and valued placements and profession for boosting their confidence (Heagney & Benson, 2017).

Another motivation for adult learners is to earn a higher income through acquired specific skills, degree, or a particular designation or certification (Rhijn, et al., 2016), and enhancing the knowledge or bridging knowledge gaps based on the professional and labour market value (Marcaletti, et al., 2018; Woodfield, 2011). However, to succeed in post-secondary education, those motivations are always associated with certain risks and challenges.

A significant amount of motivations go along with substantial risks and challenges. Thus, adult or mature-age higher education participants must show resiliency or reflexivity to manage those risks to thrive in their decision to engage in schooling and succeed. At this point, the diversity of challenges and many threats ranging from personal to economic, institutional and social relations affect students’ success. Those risks emerge from the mature and older student participants’ experiences in different forms, which the succeeding paragraphs will describe.

The personal factors, as a challenge, include academic self-efficacy and a sense of belonging (Erb & Drysdale, 2017), identity change (Jamieson, 2007; O’Boyle, 2015), internal struggles through changing view of themselves (Saddler & Sundin, 2020), and personal time and relationship with family and peers (Jamieson, 2007; Stone & O’Shea, 2013; and Heagney & Benson, 2017). Erb and Drysdale (2017) observe inconsistencies in research outcomes regarding academic self-efficacy, explaining that the mature students’ test anxiety level is lower than the traditional students while other research results show the opposite. Nevertheless, they claim that adult students have a significantly weaker sense of belongingness than conventional students. I agree with this claim considering mature students juggle with other commitments and obligations such as their families and occupations, among other things. Therefore, adult university learners affect their time and relationships with significant others, for instance, their immediate family members and friends.

Given heaps of course loads or requirements, mature students risk their time and relationships with their families and peers. Time for leisure, families and friends, becomes limited or sacrificed at all. At the same time, working hours are reduced, for instance, from full-time to part-time, to give a significant amount of time for studying and doing coursework. In this sense, higher education involves many and profound changes in adults’ relationships with other people (Saddler & Sundin, 2020), specifically with their families. This risk of becoming a mature student disrupts the dynamics in the family’s division of labour and responsibilities based on gender and generally classified (Baxter & Britton, 2001).

Furthermore, Baxter and Britton (2001) describe that mature-age or adult higher education participants inhabit different and conflicting worlds. These contradictory worlds are the world of student life associated with domestic life and the working-class life toward an educated world of the middle-class (97). Nonetheless, these individual challenges or risks occur in dissimilar instances in adult learners’ lives and could be viewed from different perspectives, creating new meanings. For example, if mature students take risks objectively and adequately manage them, it gives a more profound meaning and value to their success and accomplishments. Hence, motivations have their respective dangers or challenges alongside the learning journey to achieve goals and the desired outcomes. Optimistically, adult learners’ life adversity experiences push them to re-engage in schooling with a solid determination, giving more sense to their life as older people.


This research essay focuses on the motivations and challenges or risks experience by mature-age students. Saddler and Sundin (2020) determine mature students’ reasons to enroll in a university as follows: the internal struggles and changes (change in participants’ view about themselves and others), benefitting others (wish to better the world or to give something back), and changes in the social domain (forces of external parameters, e.g., work insecurities). Saddler and Sundin conclude that participants’ decision-making process in pursuing higher education involves changes in their lives’ intertwined facets and their overarching self-identity toward upward movement in social position.

 Based on most literature, mature-age students have complex experiences reflecting their reasons for re-engaging in post-secondary education, along with the challenges and risks of their decision. From the selected scholarly articles, mature-age learners’ common motivations gear toward getting qualifications to have a better chance on a high-paying occupation. Personal development or enrichment is just next. On the one hand, driven by more prominent economic factors such as brutal competition in the labour market and precarious jobs, upgrading knowledge and skills, and career change is prevalent capitalists’ forces to compete for their demands.

On the other hand, the personal development motivation demonstrates social relation factors such as peer or social recognition and acceptance (O’Boyle, 2015),  preserving or gaining self-esteem(Jamieson, 2007), and self-fulfillment. This individual objective also includes benefitting others or a turning point to helping others (Saddler & Sundin, 2020) and social responsibility or the desire to help others and give back to their communities (Rhijn, et al., 2016). This altruistic goal most likely results from older learner poverty experience or students from charity-oriented and affluent families.

However, Jamieson (2007) explores the socio-economic status, motivations, and benefits of mature or older people’s higher education involvement and questions the point of studying in later life. She finds out that middle-aged and older students are well-off and well-educated and make up for opportunities lost earlier in life; hence the financial aspect is not a problem. In that sense, qualification or employment reasons, benefits, and adding meaning to their later life are still the well-off mature-age students’ priorities. The group of mature students Jamieson (2007) explored describes homogeneity regarding socio-economic status, showing fewer risks in their higher education engagement because they most likely have all the supports and resources for their studies. It gives us the idea that students with or from high socio-economic status (SES) are always at an advantage to finish their university degrees.

On the contrary, mature and older students’ low SES poses more risks and challenges in going to university and sacrificing a lot. In “Risk, Identity and Change: Becoming a Mature Student,” Arthur Baxter and Carolyn Britton (2001) explores mature students’ lived experiences about the risks of higher education regarding its effects on their identities and the repercussions on their social relationships, such as with their families and former friends. They highlight two sources of risk: the risks stemming from challenges to established gender roles in the family, which refers to the effects of social class,  and dangers alongside moving away from working-class habitus, a reflective consequence of higher education. Baxter and Britton determine that identity changes on social class roles (e.g. in the family and community) and social positions (e.g. labourer versus manager) create new identities and carry connotations of either inferiority or superiority, showing hierarchy. The process portrays becoming a new and different person, a gendered and classed painful transition experience of the low-SES adult students.

Associated with the challenges of the post-secondary adult learners, Erb and Drysdale (2017) investigate the learning attributes, academic self-efficacy, and sense of belongingness of mature adult students in a large Canadian research-intensive university’s higher education environment. The authors expose that several research outcomes are contradictory. Reports are inconsistent between traditional and non-traditional students possessing significantly higher overall academic self-efficacy levels and lower test anxiety levels. However, significantly lower levels of sense of belonging of mature students cause concern considering the relationships between sense of belonging and persistence in higher education and well-being. Erb and Drysdale assume that despite several study limitations, the findings positively contribute to understanding mature students in higher learning institutions, mainly the challenges adult learners overcome to succeed in their educational endeavours. Given the above challenges to mature-age learners, holistic institutional supports must be available and accessible.

Van Rhijn et al. (2016) explores student-parents motivation to pursue post-secondary education by conducting a direct content analysis and identify two motivator categories, the primary and secondary. Primary motivators for engaging in post-secondary schooling include a valued job or career attainment, higher education (obtaining a degree or qualification), and family inspiration. Secondary motivators are personal development, improvement in lifestyle and income, inspiration from outside the family, social responsibility, overcoming physical and mental challenges, and developing a new hobby. These factors reflect that student-parents motivation in pursuing a university degree has a strong future orientation. Van Rhijn et al. posits that the student-parent reasons for studying at higher education schools are varied and complex, needing government and university policymakers’ attention to offer appropriate policies to support their success.

Even some adult post-secondary learners have institutional supports, delivery of such supports becomes problematic. In the article titled “How Mature-Age Students Succeed in Higher Education: Implications for Institutional Support,” Margaret Heagney and Robyn Benson (2017) analyze success stories of mature-age students in Australia a diverse background in higher education, highlighting some critical implications for institutional support. Despite the support mechanism available, Heagney and Benson find that students’ primary supports were families and friends, although they belong to the Australian government’s equity categories. Yet, many did not use institutional supports because they are unaware of the support services or no time to access them. Heagney and Benson argue that numbers of initiatives are necessary at the institutional level, for example, universities and responsible government agencies, to support mature-age students from diverse backgrounds and ensure students’ success.

Upon successful completion of a university degree, another challenge confronts the student-graduate in the labour market. Ruth Woodfield (2011) explores the relationship between age and post-degree employment of mature versus traditional graduates. Disadvantages that occur include employability and chances in the labour market. However, Woodfield recognizes that mature students’ relative employment success could not vividly explain because they are already in pre-degree graduate-level jobs. Those employment challenges are an affirmative disadvantage for adult and mature students when they finish their degrees, especially when they lack related work experiences.


Motivation to pursue a university degree depends on the life circumstances or challenges a mature student experiences. The reason varies on how the adult higher education learner perceives, defines, or gives meaning to their past or current life situations. Thus, the motivational patterns are problematic to generalize. The fact that the life experiences of adult post-secondary participants differ based on their age gap. Since the research participants’ lived experiences reveal diverse thematic concepts, I suggest framing them into three general perspectives, considered mature-age students’ both motivations and challenges in their decision to re-engage in higher education. These three perspectives are economic, social relations, and institutional, embracing all other reasons and explanations for their decision making.

The economic perspective refers to participants’ reasons leading to employment and earning a living, for example, upgrading knowledge and skills, qualification, better chances in the labour market, and the like. It also includes the financial aspect to sustain a quality and healthy lifestyle. Social relations illustrate personal enrichment, social or peer recognition, relationships with significant others, reaching and giving out to others, or older population contribution to community well-being,  etcetera. The family, schools, and government influence mature students’ success and failures, for example, family encouragement, school services, and government policing power. These synergized motivations coupled with appropriate mechanisms are contributory to a mature student’s successful journey.

However, I recognize the absence of age bracketing in choosing participants or systematic sample framing. Let us consider the twenty-one-year-old to fifty-year-old students in the same subset of the school population, which matured-age students showing enormous age gaps. Accordingly, I suggest age bracketing for higher education participants’ mature-age population as a better technique of selecting research participants, for example, ages twenty-one to thirty (young adult), thirty-one to forty (older adult), or forty-one to fifty (mid-life), and fifty-one and above (later-life). This sample framing scheme is more likely to render a more specific and more straightforward data analysis method.

Another problematic factor is the participants’ backgrounds, particularly in the intersection of race, culture, gender, class, and social position. It is also common in the available literature that analyzes the participants’ experiences as one group of mature students, which becomes difficult to generalize due to their out-of-school years’ experience gap before going back to higher education institutions. The common denominator of the mature-age population in re-engaging to professional education is a better chance for a high-compensation job. Therefore, I argue a strong relationship between mature-age students’ motivation and challenges in pursuing a university education. However, I recognize the possible shift of this relationship, other than economic or employment, if mature students’ age belongs to the later life sample frame (fifty-one years old and above) that I suggest. This perspective aligns with capitalist economic activities and labour market dynamics.

The capitalist economy’s role has a massive influence on the higher education system by which upgrading of knowledge and skills supply the capitalists’ demand. In a structural-functionalist view, the educational system, for example, higher education, helps stabilize human society and existing social order through socialization (schooling processes) and allocation (job placements) fulfillment. Simultaneously, the risk associated with it becomes higher as one move to an advanced social position. Further, this education’s sociological discussion is part of the entire social system’s constant modification processes. Although the economic relationship to higher education is not the focus of this research essay, it offers an opportunity to study such relationships for adult education research in the future. Migrants adult participants in higher education and the mature students’ life after earning their degrees are also exciting topics to explore.



Baxter, A. & Britton, C. 2001. “Risk, Identity and Change: Becoming a Mature Student.” International Studies in Sociology of Education 11(1):87–104. doi: 10.1080/09620210100200066.

Erb, S. & Drysdale, M. T. B. 2017. “Learning Attributes, Academic Self-Efficacy and Sense of Belonging Amongst Mature Students at a Canadian University.” Studies in the Education of Adults 49(1):62–74. doi: 10.1080/02660830.2017.1283754.

Heagney, M. & Benson, R. 2017. “How Mature-Age Students Succeed in Higher Education: Implications for Institutional Support.” Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management. 39(3):1–19. doi: info:doi/.

Jamieson, A. 2007. “Higher Education Study in Later Life: What is the Point?” Ageing & Society 27(3):363-384 ( doi:

Marcaletti, F., Iñiguez Berrozpe, T., & Koutra, K. (2018). Overcoming Age Barriers: Motivation for Mature Adults’ Engagement in Education. International Journal of Lifelong Education37(4), 451–467.

O’Boyle, N. (2015). The Risks of “University Speak”: Relationship Management and Identity Negotiation by Mature Students Off-campus. International Studies in Sociology of Education25(2), 93–111.

Stone, C., & O’Shea, S. (2013). Time, Money, Leisure and Guilt : The Gendered Challenges of Higher Education for Mature-age Students. Australian Journal of Adult Learning53(1), 95–116.

Saddler, Y. & Sundin, E. C. 2020. “Mature Students’ Journey into Higher Education in the UK: An Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis.” Higher Education Research and Development 39(2):332–45. doi: 10.1080/07294360.2019.1672624.

Van Rhijn, T., Lero, D. S., and Burke, T. 2016. “Why Go Back to School? Investigating the Motivations of Student Parents to Pursue Post‐Secondary Education.” New Horizons in Adult Education & Human Resource Development 28(2):14–26. doi: 10.1002/nha3.20135.

Woodfield, R. 2011. “Age and First Destination Employment from UK Universities: Are Mature Students Disadvantaged?” Studies in Higher Education (Dorchester-on-Thames) 36(4):409–25. doi: 10.1080/03075071003642431.

2 thoughts on “Mature-age Students: Their Motivations and Challenges in Pursuing Higher Education

  1. The topic is very thoroughly researched. I am an adult student and my motivation is several of the reasons described in the essay. The main one is frustration with my job and the desire to change the field of employment. It was undoubtedly a drawn step into the unknown and instability, to combine work and study is more difficult, there is not enough time for anything else sometimes. My family supports me but that is not the case for every adult student.
    It seems to me that as an adult the decisions you make are more stable and your emotional state is better controlled. That is why only people who are confident in its necessity for their lives go to get an education, and more adults go all the way to the end if they start it, despite all the difficulties that arise.
    And more about the details: Comprehensive guides, covering strengths and challenges faced by mature students, including parenting and anxiety as well as tips for balancing schoolwork and parenting. As well as scholarships and grants available to adult students. It is worth considering that such informational and material support are also motivating factors.

    Liked by 1 person

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