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The 50+ Crowd Goes Back to School


Suddenly, continuing education has a delicate dilemma. With different goals and motivations, more and more mature students are re-enrolling and heading back to the classroom for credentials, qualifications, upgrading, and some because it’s just something they always wanted to do.

Continuing education, in Calgary and throughout North America, is treading gingerly about what to call the new CE students. “Mature students?” “Older students?” “Later-in-life students?” “The 50+ crowd?”

Calgary CE professionals agree that, while going back into Mount Royal University or Bow Valley College classroom may not be the right choice for everyone, it is becoming an increasingly attractive option. For some, it is to upgrade or re-skill, to delay retirement, or to find the next chapter after a career interrupted by choice or chance.

In Calgary, the trend is undisputable. According to Margaret Toye, associate dean, Arts, Sciences and Extended Education at Bow Valley College (BVC) there was an increase of 8.6 per cent of students aged 50+ from 2021/2022 to 2022/2023, in the School of Extended Education.

“The trend of mature students returning to the classroom has gained momentum, as many adults are recognizing the importance of upskilling and gaining new competencies to stay competitive in the job market,” notes Suhayl Patel, associate dean at BVC’s Centre for Academic Innovation. “We have observed a growing trend among mature students particularly those focused on skill enhancement and second career pursuits. Many of those learners often come with prior experience and knowledge, and they opt for the value of building upon their existing expertise.”

The wants and needs and expectations of mature students is different. And the mature learning experience of being back in a classroom, or taking courses online, is not only different but, for some mature students, a jarring difference.

“Continuing Education at Mount Royal University (MRU) offers more than 60 professional development programs and hundreds of courses to help mature students advance their career or prepare for a career change,” explains Evan Cortens, dean at MRU’s Faculty of Continuing Education and Extension.

“In professional development programs, the percentage of mature students enrolling appears to be slowly declining, but the average age of a mature student appears to be slowly rising. We believe this is because more mature students are investing in their education later in their careers and the value of Continuing Education programming is more widely recognized among all ages.”

CE experts agree about some of the main reasons why later-in-life students are opting for courses, diplomas and credentials. Wanting second-chapter careers after decades on the job and having their duties outsourced or rendered obsolete by new technologies, or abruptly interrupted by layoff or getting phased-out or fired. For some, it is a post-retirement need for income. Or the urge to create new challenges, learn new things or just to spend the last of their working years doing something completely different.

To accommodate what mature students want to learn and how they want to learn it, changes are happening and new options are available at BVC and MRU. “The trend of mature students pursuing occupational and academic upgrading programming looks different than professional development programming,” Cortens points out.

“In occupational programming (Funeral Service Education, Massage Therapy and Personal Fitness Training), the demand for mature students is slightly increasing. However, mature students enrolled in academic upgrading are declining over the last couple of years. The trend in this programming speaks to the increased desire of mature students pursuing programming that will result in a career.”

There are various shifts and transitions to accommodate a wider (and aging) range of CE classroom demographics.

BVC’s Margaret Toye cites examples that, “In fall 2023, we started offering our Payroll Professional Certificate in affiliation with the National Payroll Institute. Learners take courses towards attaining the NPI’s Payroll Compliance Practitioner designation. More than 77 per cent of the learners in the program are aged 40 to 50, and 23 per cent of the learners in the program are 47 to 50.”

BVC’s School of Extended Education provides courses and programs for upskilling and reskilling in accounting, payroll and bookkeeping. She mentions another example that, in this fall’s BVC’s Financial Accounting Introduction, 22.5 per cent of the students were 40 to 44, 10 per cent were 45 to 49, and 20 per cent were 50+.

“We are proactively adapting the curriculums to meet the needs of mature learners,” Patel says. “This is achieved by collaborating closely with Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) who are actively engaged in the industry. These experts ensure that the curriculum remains current, aligning with the latest industry standards and trends. By doing so, learners can acquire knowledge that is immediately applicable to their field, enhancing the overall educational experience for mature students.”

He adds that BVC is not only responding to the needs of mature learners through curriculum adaptations but is also enhancing the value of its micro-credentials by partnering with professional bodies and associations such as CPHR (Chartered Professionals in Human Resources) and others. “The partnerships validate the quality and relevance of the education provided, making us even more attractive choice for those looking to upgrade their skills or embark on second careers,” he adds.

“The combination of industry-informed curriculum and professional partnerships ensures that learners receive education that is not only up-to-date but also recognized and respected in their respective fields.”

For later in life (er, mature) CE students, what is taught is sometimes not as important as how it is taught. “Mature students require programs and courses that offer job-ready skills, while also presenting opportunities for upskilling and reskilling in current and prospective career paths,” MRU’s Cortens says. “Reliance on programming that supports students in the digital economy and offers flexible delivery options is essential.

“Establishing career paths and training that allow mature immigrant students, most with previous education, to find employment quickly is equally as important.” He emphasizes that MRU consistently prioritizes flexible delivery of courses and programs, including fast track, evenings and weekends offerings. Courses are offered in a variety of formats from online, blended, in-person and virtual synchronous, so students can choose the learning format that suits their learning style and best fits within their schedule.”

Popular MRU mature student courses include ADaPT Alberta, Cyber Security, Supply Chain Management, Project Management, Digital Media Marketing and Social Media for Business.

The similar mature student focus is also happening at BVC. “In response to the changing educational landscape, online options have become increasingly popular among students,” Suhayl Patel says. “We offer a range of online courses and micro-credentials to cater to the needs of those who value the flexibility and convenience of virtual learning. These online options empower especially mature learners to acquire skills and knowledge while accommodating their personal schedules and commitments.”

In today’s continuing education, as in most businesses, “knowing the market” is critical. Adapting – not overhauling – the CE product and delivery by knowing the mature student market, is essential. “We recognize mature learners need programs and courses that are accessible, affordable and designed to meet employer and market demands, resulting in relevant workforce skills,” MRU’s Evan Cortens emphasizes.

“We support mature students in our curriculum design by developing assessments that allow students to leverage real life scenarios from their work as part of their assignments. Equally as important, we enable mature students to share and have their competencies and skills verified quickly with an employer or potential employer.”