Global events over these past three years have forced higher education to pivot in unprecedented ways.
It has to weather a new economic reality that requires marketing strategies to adapt to these changing times.
Employees are likewise pivoting their careers—by choice or by necessity—to maintain occupational relevance. This has given higher education marketers an incredible opportunity to woo an influx of adults returning to universities and colleges.
But they must adapt their approach to account for older, non-traditional students’ experiences, needs, concerns, and outside-the-classroom commitments.
So here are some tips to attract adult learners—students who don’t fit into the traditional 18- to 25-year-old demographic—looking to complete a degree after years, even decades, away from the classroom.
Adult learners are not a monolithic group
With the pandemic, many higher ed institutions have observed an increase in older students who wish to return to university for a myriad of reasons, from empty nesters whose degree was interrupted by parenthood to corporate professionals seeking competitive advantage.
Because of this diversity, adult learners present a much wider set of variables compared to traditional students. Many are parents and have full-time jobs or careers.
Higher education marketers would be wise not to paint adult learners with the same brush. They need to understand their reasons for enrolling in university, address the obstacles or concerns that might prevent them from doing so, and offer viable solutions to help them work around outside commitments and responsibilities.
Highlight flexibility of options
Unlike high-school graduates who have plenty of time to visit multiple schools and commit to a four-year degree, most adult learners have a full and complex schedule outside of the classroom.
They do most of their research online and search not for a school, but for programs that will contribute to skills they can directly apply to their profession.
So it’s important for universities and colleges to create dedicated landing pages, or even a separate microsite with its own domain or subdomain name, to market their continuing education programs and degrees.
Rather than having adult learners sift through irrelevant information about extracurricular activities, social clubs, sports programs, and student residences, content on a continuing education landing page or microsite must be presented upfront, searchable, and easily filtered by interests.
Marketers need to show prospective adult learners that they are equipped to help them accomplish their academic goals with flexible options and valuable information, like:
- Program and degree information: Full descriptions, including program costs and benefits they can expect in return for their time and investment.
- Method of delivery: Show options for on-campus, online, and hybrid classes.
- Class times: Highlight evening and weekend classes as well as short courses.
- Program duration: Give learners an indication of start dates and time to completion.
- Adult learner services: Provide easy access to information related to academic, financial, parental, and other support services unique to adult learners and continuing education programs.
Southern Utah University, for example, provides an at-a-glance overview of all its programs, degrees, and delivery methods on one page with the ability to narrow the list based on student interests.
SUU allows adult learners to search all available programs,
and delivery methods, on one page.
This type of course selection differs from the regular option available to traditional students and makes it easy for prospective adult learners to find options that suit them.
Use profiles to show university or college is possible
“How?” is the most common question adult learners may have. How am I going to fit school into a work and family life? How is university going to help my career? How will someone my age fit in at university?
Higher education marketers can use past and current adult learner profiles to answer these questions for prospective students.
Norwich University Online’s “A Week in the Life” showcases three of its alumni and how they managed to fit school into their busy schedules. This allows adult learners to see that school-work-life balance is a reality, not a myth.
These Norwich University alums share an overview of their week
and a detailed breakdown of each day.
Share success stories
Many millennials and Gen X professionals looking to return to higher education will likely research and use reviews as part of their process, especially when the stakes and costs are so much higher.
For adult learners reluctant to enroll in university or college, video or written testimonials showcasing how people with similar aspirations succeeded will provide both reassurance and motivation.
With the average age of their online students at 38, Champlain College Online uses a well-produced video to highlight success stories of some of its students who achieved that coveted school-work-life balance.
Champlain College Online encourages adult learners to “dare to expect more.”
Promote support services
For busy adult learners with full-time jobs and family responsibilities, support services are just as important as academic services.
But marketers shouldn’t bury this information deep within marketing collateral.
Instead, universities and colleges should shine a bright spotlight on their support services as a key reason for enrolling.
Adult learner support comes in many forms:
- Faculty and administrative staff trained to work with and support adult learners;
- Assistance with financial aid, grant, or scholarship applications;
- Parental support, such as kindergartens and parent centers; and
- Resources to help adult learners leverage their professional and life experience to accelerate completion time, such as Prior Learning Assessments and Recognition (PLAR).
Concordia University’s website, for example, promotes its Concordia University Student Parents Centre (CUSP).
It offers a wealth of support information, including financial and childcare resources, and special programs and events listings. It also features inviting photos of a child-friendly space situated on campus that serves as a computer lab, nursery, kitchen, and lounge.
The Concordia University Student Parents Centre helps students with children juggle academics and parenthood.
Focus on outcome rather than experience
For many traditional students, university is their first taste of independence away from home, so they place a lot of importance on the school experience.
But adult learners care less about school experience and more on the benefits of the degree.
Their goal is to advance or switch careers. So use language and imagery that focuses on what prospective adult clients can expect to achieve after successfully completing their degree: increased earning potential, career advancement, new career paths, entrepreneurial possibilities, and new or updated skill set.
For example, forgo those ubiquitous students-in-the-classroom photos and show images and testimonials of adult learners working in their ideal job after having completed their studies.
Know your audience and use inclusive content
Photos of enthusiastic 19-year-olds studying on the university lawn or crowds of fans cheering on the school’s football team can be a big draw for traditional students and their parents.
But these images can alienate adult learners and make them feel as though they have no place in school. Instead, use images that truly represent the diversity of adult learners to create an inclusive space.
It’s also important to use appropriate content and the right channel for the audience being targeted. A trendy Tik Tok video aimed at recruiting high-school grads likely won’t have the same impact on a 35-year-old finance executive looking to complete an MBA.
LinkedIn and Facebook are better go-to social media channels to target this audience.
McMaster University Continuing Education has its own LinkedIn page
promoting its lifelong learning courses and workshops.
Adult learners will continue to increase
Adult learners have significant roadblocks to overcome—real and imagined—when they consider enrolling in higher education.
With the right mix of strategy, content, and media, higher education marketers can help attract prospective adult learners by allaying the obstacles and concerns that are keeping these non-traditional students from achieving their academic and professional goals.
How do you market your university or college to adult learners?
Share your tips with us in the comments below or on social media.