Recruiting Adult Learners in Higher Education, Part 2


In the previous post, we started to discuss strategies for recruiting adult learners in higher education. Unlike recent high school graduates, adult learners come from different age groups and have different family, career and financial situations. They have different goals and progress at a different pace. As a result, more schools are implementing competency-based education models, which enable students to advance based upon demonstrated mastery of a skill or subject. This model is more flexible and personalized than the traditional time-based system.

If there’s one thing adult learners need from higher education, it’s flexibility. A primary concern among adult learners is how to fit education into their lives. Because of family and/or work obligations, adult learners are more likely to attend school part-time and take advantage of online classes. They’re more likely to take classes on nights and weekends. They might need the flexibility to take off a semester or more if family or work circumstances change.

Adult learners also need to know that their non-traditional path to a degree will be supported and not penalized. Research from New Directions for Student Services shows that adult learners, particularly those who previously started and stopped going to college, lack self-confidence when reentering higher education.

Colleges and universities must recognize the negative emotions often felt by adult learning prospects and communicate with them accordingly. Marketing to adult learners should be inclusive and inviting. Clearly explain the nuts and bolts of program curriculum – overview, faculty information, cost, start date, outcomes and how to apply. Focus imagery on the work experience after graduation rather than the classroom and campus living experiences that many adult learners won’t see. Processes related to applications, information requests, financial aid and other materials should be simple. Assistance and support should be easily accessible through multiple channels.

A survey conducted by Ruffalo Noel Levitz and Campus Explorer shows how adult learners prefer to communicate with colleges and universities. While the institutional website is critical and search engines are the primary discovery tool, communication preferences vary. More than half of adult learners would go to the website to find answers to questions themselves, but respondents also said they would use email, phone, online chat and text to get an answer. More than six in 10 said they would allow a school to send them text messages, but only about a third had ever received a text from a school. Nearly all would open an email from a school they’re interested in attending, and more than six in 10 would open an email from a school they know nothing about.

To recruit more adult learners, schools need to better understand who adult learners are at their institution, and what is most important to them. Data collection and analysis are critical. What programs are most popular with adult learners? When and how do they take classes?  How long does it take them to earn a degree? What factors drive their decisions to apply and enroll?

Based on this information, develop a multi-channel marketing strategy to recruit adult learners. Develop pages specifically for adult learners on your website, and train staff to serve this group, understand and address their concerns, and develop relationships between each prospect and your institution. Establish metrics for measuring conversions from inquiry to enrollment.

By developing a true understanding of adult learners’ needs, objectives, and emotions, colleges and universities can develop programs and recruitment strategies that resonate with this growing segment of the student population.