Increasing Adult Student Enrollment

With the current pressure on completion rates and the growing demand for higher education from a non-traditional "adult" demographic (a diverse, heterogenous demographic, comprising working mothers, career-aged adults seeking a career change or a safe harbor amid a troubled economy, military veterans, and adults of all ages returning to complete a degree), more colleges and universities across the US are devoting more attention to the recruitment and retention of adult students. Because enrollment policies and practices have long been tailored to traditional-aged students (especially at four-year institutions), efforts to recruit and enroll adults offer special challenges.

We reached out to Mike Barzacchini, director of marketing services for Harper College, who has seen considerable success in this area, for advice on how institutions can increase their enrollment of adult students.

Increasing Inquiries from Adults

First, Barzacchini suggests a two-pronged approach to generating leads:

  • Mine your historical data to identify past stop-outs and other cohorts that have shown interest in a degree at your institution
  • Create an adult-friendly website

Stop-outs are those who did not attain their degree -- not for reasons of low academic performance, but because of the intervention of life circumstances. An audit of your records can tell you which past students stopped a few classes shy of a degree. Many of these students may not even realize how close they would be to completing if they were to re-enroll. For more information, read our July 2010 article "Re-enrolling Stop-Outs: Overcoming the Barriers."

Besides stop-outs, Barzacchini advises also mining your database for prior inquiries and prior applicants. Find out who has shown interest in your institution in the past but may not have received the follow-up needed at the time.

Beyond mining your data, rethinking the way your website reaches out to adults can be key to generating more leads from this demographic. Traditional university websites often leave adults bewildered and unable to locate easily the information they want most: where and how to complete an application, what programs of interest are available, what financial aid may be available, and what the experience of other adults has been like at the institution.

Barzacchini suggests scaling your website effort in approximately three phases:

Phase 1

Offer a landing page for adults that walks them through the application process in quick, easy steps and includes only the information they most need. The key in appealing to adults and assisting them in connecting with your institution is to make the landing page task-focused. Barzacchini suggests that the landing page include, prominently:

  • How to request more information
  • How to complete an application
  • How to complete a FAFSA
  • An online copy of your information session, with testimonials from adult students that answer frequently asked questions and relay critical information.

Adults want to hear from other adult students, Barzacchini suggests. Posting online videos interviewing adult learners at your institution can be an inexpensive and effective way to make that connection. To learn more, read our article "Marketing with Online Video" or check out this example from Harper College.

Phase 2

Phase 1 offered the basic content an adult learner needs in order to get started. A good next step, Barzacchini suggests, but one that requires more resources, involves adding an online live chat feature. When an admissions officer can reply to inquiries or questions in real time, this responsiveness is attractive to adults; it conveys that the institution is responsive and committed to them. Online chat can be a key tool for boosting conversion from inquiry to applicant, or from applicant to enroll.

Phase 3

If your office is ready to ramp up further, offer an online adult viewbook that is dynamic, with live chat integrated into each page -- allowing prospective adult applicants to ask questions as they review the information.

Increasing Adult Applicants

"Try to lead adults to an experience with your institution," Barzacchini suggests -- whether the experience is a monthly information session, a large event such as an open house, a one-on-one conversation online or over the phone, a campus tour, or a career fair. Offering adults multiple touchpoints is key. Adult learners have many other commitments competing with their interest in a return to school; some may have an extended information-gathering stage prior to applying.

"We see repeat attendees at different monthly information sessions, as they think through their decision. In some cases, it can be 3-6 semesters between an adult's first attendance of an information session and matriculation -- data that shows the necessity of both multiple touchpoints. It's critical to both offer and advertise opportunities for them to ask questions and learn about the institution, and develop a follow-up plan for converting leads to applied students."
Mike Barzacchini, Harper College

An information session can be your best opportunity to remove barriers to enrollment -- not just by relaying critical information, but by providing hands-on assistance for adults who make the decision to apply. Here are some best practices recommended by Barzacchini:

  • Provide stations where adults can complete their applications or FAFSA during or immediately after the session
  • Waive the application fee for adults who apply that day
  • Have staff available to walk them through the process and assist with their application
  • If possible, have bilingual staff present to assist Spanish speakers
  • As you are likely to have more adults RSVP than actually show (some adults may have had to work late; or perhaps a babysitter canceled that evening), follow up with those who don't show and offer them an easy way to get the information they missed (such as a link to an online version of the information session)

"Offer a simple, direct pathway to enrollment," Barzacchini advises. "Simple, direct instructions for each step. Give checklists. Remove barriers and red tape."

Increasing Adult Admits

Finally, Barzacchini draws attention to two things needed to move an adult from application to matriculation:

  • Personal contact
  • Referral to the right resources on campus, efficiently and quickly

Generally, adult students value responsiveness and a high degree of service. Many may be unfamiliar with the protocols and organizational structure of a college or university, and will expect assistance in navigating it. It's important to provide adults with a designated point of contact, a staff member with the admissions office who has a significant portion of his or her time dedicated to assisting adults and routing them to the offices or resources they need, and whose performance is evaluated in part based on adult enrollment. This will be key both to improving yield on admits, and to setting new adult students up, from the start, for academic success and persistence -- by removing barriers and points of confusion at the start of their first term.