The physics of adult student marketing

Editor’s note: This article is part of a bimonthly series provided by the National Council for Marketing & Public Relations (NCMPR), an affiliated council of the American Association of Community Colleges.​

In this new economy with unemployment nearing record lows, adult students are increasingly hard to come by.

For many, going to college for a better payday tomorrow can’t compete with getting a mediocre job that pays now. This doesn’t mean we should throw in the towel till the next downturn, though. While community college marketing departments tend to focus on the four P’s to encourage prospects to our doors, perhaps we should take a page from another department: Physics.

It turns out that adult students, being made of matter, are subject to Newton’s Laws of Motion. If we apply his laws to our recruiting programs, science says adults will end up in our classrooms.


Newton’s first law states that an object at rest will stay at rest unless another force acts upon it. In physics, you’re either moving or you’re not.

Many people today are stuck in jobs they don’t like but aren’t motivated enough to do anything about it. Marketers call it indifference, fancy pants prefer malaise, and kids just say “Meh.” Science defines it as inertia.

For these people, sticking with an unfulfilling job is like having a tire with a slow leak. They know they should fix it, but that would require taking time off work, figuring out what to do with the kids and getting the car to the shop. This assumes they’ve got the cash to pay for it.

What with all the hassle, it’s just easier to keep adding air and hope it doesn’t get any worse.

However, some people only need a wee bit of coaxing to fix that pesky tire for good. Apply force, as Newton would say. They know your school exists but that might be about it. Fill that blank slate with intentional messaging about how you’re the means to get the job they want.

Get their wheels turning:

Be relevant. Don’t rattle off laundry lists of programs. Speak their language and frame your message to fit their context. You have to help them overcome their own mental objections before they’re open to see the possibilities.

Be persistent. Don’t expect to say something once or twice or even 100 times and be heard. It took a long time for them to end up in their current situation. It’s going to take a long time to convince them to get out of it.

Be where they are. Figure out where they spend their time and take your message to them: advertising, social media, news stories, community outreach. Leverage the unique power of each avenue to tell the same collective story.

Bend the arc

Newton’s second law says that velocity changes when subjected to an external force. Once you’ve got their wheels turning, it’s time to get them to do something – anything – that starts a two-way conversation.

Careful. Brute force usually backfires. Gone are the days of weaponizing facts to win a debate. Applying a full-court press expecting a 180-degree change in attitude is just asking for disappointment and maybe even a bad pass to the face.

Instead, leverage support from existing relationships. Coordinate your efforts to slowly bend the arc. With time you’ll accomplish the same turnaround.

One well-timed tap can drastically alter the course of an object. Consider how Olympic curlers use a tiny broom to adjust the trajectory of a 40-pound stone without ever touching it. That sport has Newton written all over it.

Bring out your inner Olympic recruiter by finding people who already have influence in your prospects’ lives and make them advocates. One little word of encouragement from a community leader, a counselor or a pastor could be just enough to tip the scales of someone considering college.

Create opportunities for engagement:

Partner with area agencies and organizations. Build a network of contacts in workforce development, DHS, voc rehab and community groups. Ask them to spread the word about your college’s programs and services. Chances are they know a slew of ideal candidates (many by name). Remember to reciprocate. When you find a student who would benefit from their services, send a referral. When the student wins, everyone wins.

Get involved and expect nothing in return. Being active in the community humanizes the college, builds trust, and most importantly, dispels your image as that big scary college that can’t possibly be for them. Sponsor a booth at community events, put a float in the parade, host summer movies on the campus lawn, hold adult ed classes in neighborhood centers.

Build a non-credit-to-credit pipeline. Anyone who takes a non-credit class – regardless of subject – is (if only for a few hours) a college student. Make your certificates of completion worth framing – better yet, do it for them. Bundle skills classes into a certificate series with a basic credential or endorsement. Invite credit instructors to do a demo or teach a lesson for a little soft-sell recruiting.

Overcome obstacles

Newton’s third law says that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. For the most part, we can push through the motivational inertia but most adults have one last force to overcome: life. Family, job, money – they burn all their energy dealing with everyday challenges and just plain run out of gas by the end of the day.

That rascal Newton definitely saved the toughest for last. It’s not enough for you to match these forces, you have to overpower them. Thankfully, your college is uniquely equipped to win this tug-of-war.

Clear roadblocks to get (and keep) them in the classroom:

Keep sharing stories. Whether recruitment or retention, people identify with others like themselves. Find students and alumni who persevered through struggles and setbacks. One well-told story can move a mountain.

Promote your support programs and services. Classes and academic programs are important, but equally important are the support systems that help students manage the challenges they have outside the classroom that free them to be successful inside the classroom. Are you talking up the benefits of your Trio program or your student advocates? This kind of support can make or break a student’s success, so it’s vital they know how to find it.

Find them money. Part-time students are usually locked out of traditional financial aid vehicles. Develop part-time student scholarships. Offer a free credit class to adult ed grads. Create an emergency retention fund to help students pay an unforeseen bill. Buy down equipment startup expenses and cover licensure testing fees.

Following this list likely won’t win you the Nobel Prize, but if you apply the appropriate marketing force, you will see movement in your adult student enrollment. Because, science.

About the Author

Jeff ebbing
is director of marketing and communications at Southeastern Community College in West Burlington, Iowa. He serves on the NCMPR board of directors and is the NCMPR District 5 director.