Recruiting Adult Learners in Higher Education, Part 1


According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, enrollment in colleges and universities dropped 1.4 percent in 2016, continuing a downward trend that began in 2012. This data reflects the recruitment challenges faced by higher education institutions. Prospective students are taking a consumer-like approach and closely evaluating ROI when choosing a school.

Also, schools are struggling to recruit and serve the growing population of nontraditional students, or adult learners. In addition to full-time students between the ages of 18 and 24, higher education must cater to those who don’t fit that description. Some students are older because they chose not to enter college after finishing high school. Some have established careers with full-time jobs. Some are married with children. Some are single parents. Some would like to attend school part-time while working full-time or part-time.

Obviously, the life of an adult learner is a bit more complex than that of a high school senior living with his or her parents. Adult learners are driven by different emotions and needs. Because adult learners are in a different stage of life, personally and professionally, their goals are usually different, and they’re likely to progress at a different pace.

Some colleges and universities are using competency-based education and credit for prior learning to attract adult learners. Traditionally, students earn credit for completing a course during a specific timeframe and achieving a passing grade. Competency-based education enables students to learn at their own pace and advance based upon demonstrated mastery of a skill or knowledge of subject matter. This shift from a time-based system to a learning-based system provides students with a flexible, personalized educational environment that isn’t limited to classrooms and lecture halls.

The competency-based education model ensures that content is relevant to and customized for the individual student’s needs and objectives. Schools and students can make better use of technology and take advantage of modern learning methods. This results in higher student engagement, a greater ability to identify and assist at-risk students, and better student retention and degree-completion rates.

Working together to share strategies and best practices, colleges and universities have launched a number of initiatives to support their competency-based education programs. Many are offering workshops to educate faculty, staff and students about the value of competency-based education. Educators are receiving stipends and grants for developing new curricula, assessments and pathways for advancement. Students in these programs can take prior learning assessments and transfer credits from other institutions, and schools are adjusting their transfer policies and procedures accordingly.

In the next post, we’ll discuss why flexibility is a high priority for adult learners, and how higher education institutions can develop an effective strategy for recruiting prospective adult learners, especially as it relates to messaging and communication.