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7 Strategies for Recruiting Adult Learners and Non-Traditional Students

Higher education institutions tend to define “non-traditional students” or “adult learners” as students over 25 who are returning to college to complete an undergraduate degree or undertake an undergraduate degree for the first time. Under this definition, approximately 38% of college students in the U.S. would fall into this category.  In recent years, there has been an attempt to make the definition more granular and move away from a purely age-based criteria when talking about how to market higher education to adults.

Attributes of non-traditional students include:

  • Independent of parents for financial aid reasons

  • Having one or more dependents

  • Being a single caregiver

  • Not having a traditional high school diploma

  • Delaying postsecondary enrollment

  • Stopping out of degree program for many reasons

  • Attending school part time

  • Being employed full time

Using these criteria, 31% of all students in the U.S. meet at least 2 of these criteria, and 74% of all students would have at least one of these attributes. How should colleges and universities approach marketing and recruiting this growing population?

Key Message for Adult Learners: Flexibility

Prospective adult students want to hear about flexibility. This population needs to understand how they can fit school into their existing life commitments. Historically, flexibility has taken on two meanings: it touches on the format of course delivery — online or hybrid — and the time of those classes — evenings or weekends — as these are perceived as more accommodating or flexible. In our interviews with adult learners, a third dimension emerges: flexibility also means the ability to stop and start the degree as family, work, or financial circumstances dictate. Prospects want to know if they need to take a semester off they can do so without penalty.

Communicating About Flexibility to Non-Traditional Students

This audience appreciates direct communication. It’s best to clearly state and demonstrate how your programs are designed for the needs of this audience. 

  • Norwich University Online created a week in the life interactive feature to show how different student types fit graduate programs into their lives.

  • Other schools such as Champlain College Online use student testimonials as a tool for demonstrating how current students fit school into their schedules.

  • Schools should communicate about flexibility across all parts of the student experience — How is financial aid flexible? How are faculty flexible?

Recognize the Emotions of Adult Learners and Non-Traditional Students

From an emotional perspective, many adult learners do not approach returning to college to complete a degree with the same motivation or enthusiasm of an 18-year old looking for a 4-year residential experience. As some prospects cut their undergraduate schooling short, these prospects bring negative emotions — shame, fear, apprehension — to the process. As research in New Directions for Student Services indicates many adult learners display a “lack of self-confidence upon reentry to college.”

Addressing the Emotions of Adult Learners

From a marketing perspective, recognizing and considering these negative emotions is critical. Here are some implications to consider:

  • Ensure your marketing materials have a warm, open, and inviting tone – Champlain College uses more familiar language such as "paying for school" rather than "financial aid"

  • Watch out for intimidating processes — applications, request information forms, or financial aid information. Make everything simple and accessible.

  • Consider low stakes entry points. Some schools (before COVID) hosted wine and cheese open houses to offer a non-threatening environment to engage these prospects.

  • Use calls to action that push for personal interactions with supportive admissions staff.

  • Provide multiple ways to engage — email, phone, chat, and in-person. These prospects pick the one they feel most comfortable with.

  • Remember, these prospects may choose to remain anonymous for a long time as they are ambivalent about engaging.

Key Content to Market to Adult Learners

Based on our ethnographic user research and broad based surveys with adult learners, we’ve identified the key content required that these prospects seek during the admissions process.

Program or Degree Details Are Critical for Adult Learners

Program curriculum is paramount for prospective adult students. Every higher education marketing plan needs to include a budget to build out a robust program section on the website for each program that includes:

  • Program overview

  • Faculty information with terminal degrees

  • Tuition or cost per credit

  • Next start date

  • Admission process

  • Outcomes

Adult students and professional graduate students care less about the overall student experience and more about the quality and rigor of the classroom experience. If you’re designing a new website, make sure that you have a quick pathway from the homepage to programs like this example from Cambridge College.

Avoid In-Class Imagery

We discovered that adult learners do not tend to like imagining themselves in the classroom. They respond more positively to photography that shows them working in the career or role that they will have after they graduate. Returning to school is a means to an end. Their focus is on the end results.  

Emphasize Accreditation and Non-Profit Status

With the negative press on for-profit schools and the closing of schools like Corinthian College, prospects are increasingly aware of the risks associated with enrolling at a for-profit school. Prospects respond positively to the credibility afforded by a third-party — even when they have never heard of the accrediting body — and a non-profit moniker. Both help prospects feel more comfortable with a school. For-profit universities (such as Kaplan) are adapting to this changing landscape by merging with non-profit schools to shed the for-profit moniker.

Highlight Tuition and Aid

Transferred credits mean lower tuition to the prospective adult student. In our research, prospects tend to “mentally discount” published tuition costs because they expect to receive some credit. They rarely expect to pay full tuition, and they love to be reassured that their credits will transfer. On your website and brochures, we recommend highlighting any scholarships, discounts, corporate partnerships, or credit transfer policies loudly and directly.

A Campus Builds Credibility

A physical campus is another credibility-building proof point for prospective students. A campus means that the school is not a “fly by night” institution and therefore it can be trusted. If your school draws mostly from a local radius, the campus offers a means of recourse if there is a problem. Prospects think: “If I have an issue with my bill or enrollment, I can always get in my car and go see someone in person.” A higher education marketing plan should always highlight the campus.

Choice Matters to Adult Learners

When asked, prospects report they like having lots of choice. Prospective students like to know that there are lots of options for them and they can find the one that fits their career goals.

Non-Traditional Students Want to Start Soon

Prospective graduate students don’t want to wait. They want to start their degree quickly, finish quickly, and get onto the career (and higher salary) that the new degree will provide for them. These program pages from Norwich University Online have the start dates right at the top of the program description.

Focus on Outcomes

For adult learners, outcomes illustrated by alumni testimonials, job placement numbers, or career advancement are a top decision criteria.

Apply these strategies to your graduate program pages

All of these messaging strategies apply to your adult and graduate marketing efforts — from print brochures, to television ads, to your website. These research-tested messages are a starting point for forming a communication strategy for adult learners. From these message starters, you can find the unique stories at your school that function as proof points.

This post was originally published in 2017. It was updated January 25, 2021.