Talking the Talk: Creating Outreach Plans for Adult Learners

The population of adult learners entering higher education is at an all-time high; today “adult” learners (those older than 25 embarking on a new academic program) comprise at least a third of all college learners. As well, the percent of adult learners attending college on a full-time basis has been increasing. As the demand for a more skilled—and credentialed—workforce builds, the trend is likely to continue.

Adult learners come in all shapes and sizes—and their motivations for attending school are just as varied. For admissions offices, this heterogeneity can be a challenge. In order to better attract and enroll adult learners, admissions offices need to understand which adult learners are interested in their programs and why. By doing so, schools can develop more meaningful communications with messaging that adult learners want to hear.


Gather the Data

A number of sources provide great starting points for thinking about the kinds of data you will want to gather to communicate well with adult learners.

A 2013 study performed jointly by Noel-Levitz and CAEL (The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning) captured how adult learners ranked their key priorities when choosing to enroll in higher education. Availability of a particular program, convenience of time and place, cost, whether the program helped fulfill a requirement for a current or future job, and availability of financial assistance all ranked high for both students contemplating community colleges and four-year institutions. Adults considering 4-year programs also proved to be keenly interested in time to completion and flexible pacing.

Or, as higher education consultant Maggie Culp said in an interview with PBS:

“Adult learners are juggling family, work and educational responsibilities. They don’t do optional. They do not respond well if institutions waste their time, give them incomplete or inaccurate information, or ask them to follow policies designed for 18 to 22 year olds.”

Penn State’s Gary Kuhne, Associate Professor of Education, outlines the characteristics of adults as learners, citing their desire for more control over situations, their reliance on experience, and their greater levels of motivation and pragmatism as factors that distinguish them from younger undergraduates.

Finally, The Institute of Behavioral and Applied Management’s study, “Good Times to Hard Times: An Examination of Adult Learners 2004-2010,” examines employment, income, motivations, and barriers of adult learners. Its subjects ranged from early career changers with no spouse or child to septuagenarian great-grandparents seeking academic enrichment, with a focus on working students. The report (available at your library) looked at standard demographic information—age, household income, financial dependents, location, and career—along with characteristics like motivation and course format—all important indicators of enrollment potential.


Build the Plan

Competing for adult learners is a growing priority for schools, and requires a different way of thinking than the competition for younger undergrads. In order to best market to your adult student pool, you will need a data acquisition scheme that will help you build appropriate plans.

Tier 1: Primary Segmentation—Just the facts (What, When, How)
Primary segmentation provides the basic framework for how you will communicate with a prospect. Data can be acquired through a simple online form. Brevity is key. The shorter the form, the more likely an adult prospect will take the time to fill it out. At this stage, your communications should provide relevant information quickly and conveniently.

Tier 2: Secondary Segmentation—Encourage and sustain (Who)
Secondary segmentation drills down to demographic information, and can be collected through supplemental forms in print or online. Information like age, gender, employment status or earnings, and family details will help you gain a deeper understanding of your applicant pool. At this stage, your communications can—and indeed should—include information about how this particular student cohort can thrive at your institution.

Tier 3: Tertiary Segmentation—Get real (Why)
Tertiary segmentation should rely on data about motivations, expectations, and anxieties. It’s some of the most difficult data to quantify through surveys or forms since each individual’s motivations are unique. Still, collecting information on whether a student is learning for self-enrichment, to increase salary, to enter a new field, or for another reason will provide admissions reps with keen insight during 1-to-1 communications. Tertiary segmentation is as granular as most schools would ever need to get in order to script highly relevant enrollment outreach for a student.

Having a bank of this information will be enormously valuable year-over-year to identify strengths and weaknesses in how you are attracting adult students.


Segmentation in Use

With your key segments identified, designing an outreach plan that reflects the in-depth information you’ve collected is a matter of planning. Combining outreach by segments will help ensure each prospective student is consistently being targeted with relevant information. Automated campaigns work well for quantitative communications (information about program, entry year, format, anticipated entry date). For qualitative communications, a personal connection works best—with a current student, faculty, alumni, or financial aid planner. This can be beneficial when addressing barriers to enrollment, like career or family commitments or location considerations. Adult students want to see that people like themselves have accomplished what they want to accomplish. By using data gathered for segmentation, an institution can share those stories.

One of the greatest benefits of clear segmentation is its analytics potential. By having such a range of information to examine, you can better assess who is responding to your general marketing outreach and who is engaged by more personalized marketing. Rather than just relying on large categories (like age group) that ignore nuance within the category (like motivation), you can get a clear and more nuanced idea of what is succeeding and what could be improved.

By gathering useful segmentation data, it’s possible to open a meaningful conversation between admissions and those qualified applicants intending on pursuing this course of continued higher education. With some premeditated data acquisition strategies and a messaging plan that uses that data, a personalized marketing plan for every individual in your prospect pool, regardless of how disparate that pool may be, is within your reach.