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More than a Second Chance

Mature student programs are an essential but undervalued contributor to high school completion

Mature student programs that are focused on high school completion offer more than a second chance for adults. They have become an important part of the education system for those who are compelled to return to secondary programs to prepare for postsecondary education and for those who need an extended opportunity to complete high school. Their supportive environment that is responsive to the busy and complex lives of adult students distinguishes them from many regular high school programs. Adult education programs at the secondary level are a vital part of long-term poverty reduction strategies and contributor to high school graduation rates. They are also an essential conduit into the postsecondary system.

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“Sorry I’m late,” says a young woman breathlessly as she walks in, halfway through the class. “My sitter was late, and then I missed my bus.” The student, in her early 20s, has two children under four, and is constantly juggling childcare arrangements while waiting for full-time subsidized spots in the daycare near her home.

“No problem,” says the teacher, as she continues writing a formula on a whiteboard. “We were in the middle of reviewing yesterday’s work. You’re just in time to join us as we cover the trickiest part.”

A little later, a man in his early 30s raises his hand. “Miss? Um...” He hesitates awkwardly before addressing the teacher by her first name. “...um, Michelle, could you tell me what’s on this week’s quiz?” Although they are the same age, he is unaccustomed to using a teacher’s first name. All staff, including the administration, in this mature student program are on a first-name basis. The man was recently laid off, and wants to complete his high school education in order to enter a post-secondary program that will lead to new career.

From the back of the classroom an F-bomb is dropped. A young man, who looks like he could easily be in a regular high school, pushes his chair back from a computer desk in frustration.

“That’s a loonie for the coffee fund,” says the woman sitting at the computer next to him. Now in her 40s, she came to Canada soon after her marriage at the age of 16. She always regretted not being able to complete high school, but waited until her youngest child was in school full-time before returning to a mature student program.

The hoodie-wearing 19-year-old rolls his eyes but digs into his pocket. The students developed their own ground rules for the way that they want their class to run, including the fine for swearing in front of others while in class. This young man left school – and home – at 17. He reluctantly returned at the age of 18 as a condition of receiving income assistance. He walks over to a desk covered with tea and coffee supplies and drops the loonie into an empty coffee tin. On most days, the teacher stays in the class and joins the students for their morning coffee break. Everyone takes turns doing the clean-up.

These vignettes reflect some key differences between many regular high school programs and adult high school completion programs. The students are, of course, older. But it is the overall environment that researchers, including myself, have identified as a key element in the success of these programs. A supportive environment means program planning and scheduling decisions are responsive to the busy and complex lives of adult students. A sense of acceptance contributes to supportive and respectful interactions with teachers and peers, which can help students overcome previous negative school experiences.1 Most importantly, “Teachers attuned to the unique needs and circumstances of adults [are] integral to a positive program experience.”2 During interviews, students in Ontario programs commented on their teachers’ genuine passion for their work, their patience and empathy, and their ability to use a combination of creative and explicit teaching methods.

Mature student programs and high school completion rates

Mature student programs focused on high school completion operate in a variety of ways across the country. There may even be several distinct pathways or approaches within a province, including adult language and literacy programs, which can prepare students to enter a credentialed secondary level program. The programs can be found in schools, colleges, and community organizations, in store-front locations and in correctional facilities. Whether referred to as adult upgrading, basic skills, adult credit, basic education, or GED programs,3 they all lead to a provincially sanctioned high school diploma or equivalency certificate.

These programs have become an important part of the education system, helping to ensure that Canada continues to achieve one of the highest rates of high school completion in the world, Between 1999 and 2007, nearly one-fifth (17 percent) of young people in Canada left high school without a diploma, but by the time the cohort was 26-28 years old, only six percent were without a high school diploma or post-secondary education.4

Figure 15 compares the percentage of graduates at age 18-19 in each province with the percentage at 20-24. It is likely that mature student programs helped boost the graduation rates in each province. Nationally, they generated 13 percent6 of graduates in 2009-2010. Programs in Nova Scotia, with one-fifth of young people obtaining a credential after the typical graduation age, play a particularly vital role.

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Challenges facing mature student programs

Mature student programs are often referred to as “second chance” programs, suggesting that students somehow squandered their opportunities the first time around. However, adult students who attend these programs do so because they are compelled back into the secondary system or need an extended opportunity to complete secondary school. Those who are compelled back may need specific course pre-requisites for post-secondary education or may need to improve their marks. Some are recent immigrants who completed their secondary and possibly even post-secondary education, but who must now requalify in a system that doesn’t recognize or devalues foreign education credentials. Furthermore, as long as families live in poverty, there will be a need to offer an extended opportunity to adolescents and young adults to complete their diploma requirements. This is most apparent when looking at Aboriginal learners, who live in poverty at higher rates, and who are also more likely to delay their entry into the post-secondary system.7According to the Canadian Teachers’ Federation,8 living in poverty is connected to an inter-related and accumulating set of factors that can combine to compel students to leave high school, such as their readiness to learn; low self-confidence or motivation; social exclusion; frequent moves and interrupted attendance; and inability to participate in enrichment activities.

Adult education programs at the secondary level are a vital part of long-term poverty reduction strategies.9 They are also an essential conduit into the post-secondary system. However, these programs face their own inequities and a sort of “second class” status within the education system. Straddled between the concerns and interests of the regular K-12 system and post-secondary programs, mature student programs are rarely the focus of sustained policy attention, and are vulnerable to short-sighted funding decisions.

Two provinces, Newfoundland and Labrador and British Columbia, have recently instituted reforms in their college systems to either remove or substantially downsize adult programs leading to high school credentials. Newfoundland privatized its programs in the summer of 2013, removing them from the provincial college system and placing them in private career colleges. B.C. is eliminating funding for entry-level courses, after previously decreasing vital post-secondary access supports for social assistance recipients.10 B.C. is now focusing resources on those most likely to enter post-secondary education and decreasing access to those deemed less likely to proceed through all courses.11 There may be some room for optimism in Ontario which, after drastic cuts in the late 1990s, is beginning an extensive consultation process towards the development of a provincial adult education strategy centred on secondary completion and post-secondary access.

Mature student programs facilitate high school completion and access to post-secondary education, particularly for students living in poverty and for those compelled back into the secondary system. Given their importance to secondary graduation rates, especially for our most disadvantaged students, these programs deserve to have a more prominent place as an inherent and valued part of a comprehensive education system.

En Bref - Les programmes pour étudiants adultes visant l’achèvement des études secondaires offrent plus qu’une deuxième chance aux adultes. Ils sont maintenant une importante composante du système d’éducation pour les personnes qui doivent retourner au secondaire en vue d’entreprendre des études postsecondaires et pour celles qui ont besoin de ressources prolongées pour terminer leurs études secondaires. Un environnement de soutien tenant compte de la vie occupée et complexe des étudiants adultes se distingue des nombreux programmes réguliers d’études secondaires. Les programmes d’éducation de niveau secondaire pour adultes sont des éléments vitaux pour les stratégies à long terme de réduction de la pauvreté : ils contribuent à accroître les taux de diplomation d’études secondaires. Ils constituent également un mode essentiel de passage au système postsecondaire.

Photo: Chris Schmidt (iStock)

First published in Education Canada, May 2015



1 Christine Pinsent-Johnson, Shannon Howell and Rebekka King, Returning to High School in Ontario: Adult students, post-secondary plans and program supports (Toronto: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, 2013), www.heqco.ca/SiteCollectionDocuments/Formatted_CESBA.pdf ; Cassandra MacGregor and Thomas Ryan, “Secondary Level Re-Entry of Young Canadian Adult Learners,” Australian Journal of Adult Learning 51, no. 1 (2011): 143-160, http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ951990.pdf

2 Pinsent-Johnson, et al. Returning to High School, 37.

3 Students can prepare for and write a Canadian version of the General Educational Development (GED) test to receive a provincial high school equivalency certificate.

4 Statistics Canada, Interrupting High School and Returning to Education (Education Indicators in Canada: Fact Sheets, 2010). www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/81-599-x/81-599-x2010005-eng.htm

5 Statistics Canada, Interrupting High School.

6 From Kathryn McMullen and Jason Gilmore, A Note on High School Graduation and School Attendance, By Age and Province, 2009/2010 (Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 81-004-X, 2012).www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/81-004-x/2010004/article/11360-eng.htm The data do not directly distinguish between graduates with developmental disabilities, who complete modified diploma requirements at the age of 21, and graduates who complete standard diploma requirements between the ages of 20 and 24. However, related data do include the percentage of 20-24 year olds who had not graduated but were still in school; these would likely include students receiving a modified diploma. The percentage of these students is negligible in all provinces except Quebec, which has a different secondary/post-secondary system.

7 Educational Policy Institute, Access, Persistence, and Barriers in Post-secondary Education: A literature review and outline of future research (Toronto: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, 2008), 7.www.heqco.ca/SiteCollectionDocuments/Access%20Persistence%20and%20Barriers%20ENG.pdf

8 Canadian Teachers’ Federation, Supporting Education... Building Canada: Child poverty and schools. (Canadian Teachers’ Federation, 2009). www.ctf-fce.ca/Research-Library/FINAL_Hilldayleavebehind_eng.pdf

9 Shauna Butterwick, A Path Out of Poverty: Helping B.C. income assistance recipients upgrade their education (Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, B.C. Office, 2006).www.policyalternatives.ca/sites/default/files/uploads/publications/BC_Office_Pubs/bc_2006/path_out_of_poverty.pdf

10 Butterwick, A Path Out of Poverty.

11 Katie Hyslop, “Literacy Bumbled among Three Ministries: SFU prof,” The Tyee, March 8, 2013. http://thetyee.ca/News/2013/03/08/BC-Literacy-Mismanaged/