Marketing to Adult Students

Image of an academic library

Increasingly, academic leaders are becoming aware that the traditional, 18-year-old high school graduate enrolling as a freshman at a four-year institution is a shrinking demographic. According to data from the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES):

  • Three-fourths of today’s college students are nontraditional
  • 49 percent are enrolled part-time
  • 38 percent work full-time
  • 27 percent have dependents of their own at home

As colleges and universities strive to enroll more of the growing adult student market, they face significant challenges: at most four-year institutions, the website, marketing messages, and the academic experience those messages promote are tailored to the needs of traditional-aged, high-school graduates.

We turned to Bob Sevier, senior vice president of strategy at STAMATS, for his insights on factors in college choice for adult students, and where colleges can see gains in marketing to adults.

College Choice: Adult Students

“‘Adult learners’ is a broad tag that covers many types of adult students with many motivations for returning to college, but in the main, if there’s one thing you need to stress, it’s flexibility.”
Bob Sevier, STAMATS

It’s key to understand that adult students have more demands on their time. Sevier suggests that adult students are also more likely than traditional students to perceive their college education as a means to an end. “For many traditional students, the campus experience and the process of gaining education is an event, a rite of passage. For adult learners, it is more likely a step to getting something else — a better degree, a better job.” Adult students are likely to be focused on that end outcome and are probably looking for the quickest and most convenient way to get to it.

The flexibility that attracts adult students includes:

  • Courses offered at different times (evenings, weekends)
  • Accelerated programming
  • Ease in transferring credits
  • The ability to “stop out” for a semester or even a year and then re-register and be welcomed back

Convenience and services offered are also critical. For example, an adult student may want to know:

  • Is there a place for me to park near my classes?
  • Is there safe child care available?
  • Can I cash a check while on campus?
  • Is the bookstore open at night?

“A lot of adult students are barely in school. All it takes is an issue with a spouse or an employer or a car that won’t start or a child that gets sick, and they’re out. Do everything you can to remove both real and imagined barriers.”
Bob Sevier, STAMATS

Finally, Sevier notes that cost is a key factor in college choice for some (though not all) adult students. Many employers are no longer providing financial assistance to employees who are going back to school, and adult learners remain wary of taking out loans. Sevier advises being very clear with prospective adult students about what non-loan financial aid is available for adults. “Be clear, be early in the conversation, and be timely,” he suggests. Make sure you’re ready to respond swiftly to questions. “Adults will get frustrated when they don’t hear back. If you say you are going to send them a package, they expect it to arrive FedEx-fast.”

Don’t Focus on the Channel First

“There is so much conversation about engaging prospective students, whether adult or traditional, through social media,” Sevier notes. “What’s more important is the message you’re sending in that channel.” You need to let prospective adult students know in what ways getting an education at your institution is flexible, convenient, and cost-effective for them. That is where to start.

Sevier shares this anecdote: “I ran into a young man telling me that Twitter pretty much established this barbecue company in L.A. The company does not have a restaurant — they own three trucks. The night before, they tweet where the trucks will be, and the customers come and line up and get the barbecue. Now, the young man describing the company suggested that Twitter made their success. I asked the young man, ‘Do you think having great barbecue played a role?'”

“What I worry about,” Sevier reflects, “is that colleges may invest so much in opening channels through social media, that they focus too much of their attention on that rather than on crafting a powerful message and delivering on the promise of that message. When the adult learners arrive on campus, if they find the services are not as flexible as they need or that they feel unwelcome in the classroom, then they will turn around and use those same social media to disparage the college.”“Social media is great, but if your adults are having a dissatisfying experience, that social media will turn around and bite you.”
Bob Sevier, STAMATS

Have Adult Students Tell the Story

“The best channel is one satisfied student speaking to a prospective student. Your job as marketers is to facilitate that conversation.”
Bob Sevier, STAMATS

Whether you leverage a social media channel or a peer-to-peer network to disseminate your messages, Sevier recommends building your strategy on the positive endorsements of your students. You want to find opportunities to encourage prospective students to speak with current students. You might incentivize current students to give presentations at their places of business rather than sending in a recruiter from your staff. You might capture on your website stories of how your institution helped adult learners overcome their barriers. (For examples of providing online video testimonials and tutorials for prospective adults, as well as traditional-aged students, read our article on “Marketing with Online Video.”)

“If, as a prospective adult student, I were to click on a college’s website,” Sevier remarks, “and I see the dean of admissions in professional attire, I’m not going to be overly enamored with their message. They are paid to say that. If I have the opportunity to link in with other students who are just talking about their experience at the institution, the message may be grittier, but it will also be more believable.”

Implications for the Website

“In the student center, there is often a map with pins and little notes tacked on: “I need to get to Butte for Christmas, is anyone driving that way?” This can also happen on the website.”
Bob Sevier, STAMATS

“Can students get into your site quickly,” Sevier asks, “and can they find other students like themselves? Focus less on sending on institution-centric messages, more on getting audiences engaged with you and with each other.”

The success of your website in attracting adult students depends on:

  • Ease in finding the information they need
  • Ease in getting access to services
  • Ease in hearing from or asking questions of other adult students

“Adults most often visit the website with specific questions in mind,” Sevier advises. “How do I find that internship? How do I get that loan?” To keep your website adult-friendly:

  • Make sure to define any terminology used — “they may not know the ‘lingo’; they may not know terms like “student deferment”
  • Make sure visitors don’t have to drill down far or search long to get the answers to their questions — “they don’t care how you’re organized, they don’t care whose department reports to whose department; they are going to look to the website for answers to their questions”

“You want adults to be not only comfortable navigating the site but also enthused at learning about your university. You want the content on your site to be relevant to this audience, remembered by the audience, and repeated to others in the audience.”
Bob Sevier, STAMATS

Finally, Sevier notes the critical importance of ensuring that your website is mobile-friendly: “How readable is your site on mobile devices? Make sure that prospective adults who are working professionals can navigate immediately to the information they need most.”