Adults seek flexible options for college

Source: EAB, "Understanding the Shifting Adult Learner Mindset: Insight for Growth from EAB's Adult Learner Survey," May 2019.

Community colleges need to attract adult students to keep their enrollment numbers up, but to do that, they need to understand what motivates older learners to pursue higher education.

EAB offers guidance on how to reach adult learners in a new guide that is based on a survey of nearly 800 current and prospective students of undergraduate, graduate, online and certificate programs. Although most participants were pursuing or considering bachelor’s or higher degrees, most of the findings apply just as well to community college students.

Cost, commitments are barriers

According to the report, “Adult learners require flexible options,” including online and hybrid courses along with schedules that mesh with their jobs and personal obligations.

While the top reason adults gave for not pursuing education is the high cost, 45 percent cited family and work-related commitments.

Among those who were currently enrolled or planning to enroll, the top factors influencing their decision included the total length of time required to complete a degree; the option for flexible, weekend or part-time scheduling; and the availability of online or hybrid programs. In fact, older adult learners (over age 35) placed a higher value on flexible schedules and online courses than young students.

A return on investment is critical for adults, EAB found. Before enrolling, they want evidence that their investment “will result in a substantial, positive impact on their lifestyle.”

Due to the strong economy and students’ reservations about finances, “many prospective adults are uncertain about whether the value of pursuing their education outweighs the cost of getting a degree,” EAB reported.

Among survey respondents who said they did not plan to continue their education within the next two years or said they were undecided, about half said they would change their plans and consider going back to school if tuition were more affordable, and 29 percent said they would do so if pursuing more education would give them an opportunity to earn more money.

The majority of adults currently enrolled or planning to enroll (61 percent) are primarily motivated by financial factors, such as the potential for career advancement, higher earnings or changing careers.

Digital resources

“Today’s adult learners are savvy, digital consumers who place a high value on a school’s responsiveness,” the report said. When researching and applying to schools, they expect to find the information they need quickly using digital resources.

Forty-three percent of survey participants currently enrolled said they first learned about their school through word of mouth – from friends, colleagues, family and alumni – while 32 percent cited online resources, such as search engines, the school’s website and accreditation websites.

When asked to rate the importance of various online communications when searching for information, the most important factor was the “school’s responsiveness to my inquiries.”

Just over half (52 percent) said it’s at least somewhat important to be able to complete an application on a mobile device.

Recruitment strategies

Based on the survey findings, EAB offered several recommendations to improve a college’s efforts to recruit adult learners:

  • Ensure marketing effectively articulates the return on investing in education. The report recommended “integrated multichannel campaigns that highlight program value” and discussion about the speed to degree, skills gained and flexibility in scheduling and instructional formats.
  • Use data to better understand potential students and tailor marketing to their intent. Sophisticated student-centered marketing and effective customer service are critical. Communication with prospective applicants should include messages tailored to their questions and intent.
  • Reach students early with awareness campaigns and multichannel marketing. To effectively engage students early, ensure that messaging is closely tied to students’ known interests and motivations.
  • Craft messaging that conveys school-life balance. Marketing messages should highlight flexible options, including online and expedited courses of study.

Related article: Pivoting to adults for workforce needs

About the Author

Ellie Ashford
is associate editor of Community College Daily.
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