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Who’s Your Customer? The Differences Between Recruiting Traditional and Non-Traditional Learners

The EvoLLLution | Who’s Your Customer? The Differences Between Recruiting Traditional and Non-Traditional Learners
The central question for anyone recruiting adults into college is: How do you find a student who doesn’t even realize they want to study?

The world of enrollment management is divided into two groups: People who think recruiting traditional first-year students is the same as recruiting non-traditional students; and those who know better. Both processes have common elements—a prospective student must be presented with information intended to educate and convince that student to enroll—but the differences outweigh the similarities. After all, a road crew worker and a dentist both use tools to fix holes in smooth surfaces.

Several years ago, I was serving in a leadership role recruiting non-traditional students at a private college. My colleague who served the same function for the traditional population and I attended a meeting with our institution’s president. The discussion turned to goals and expectations for the following year. My peer said he was purchasing a list of 50,000 rising seniors who would be applying to colleges in the following year. The president turned to me and asked, “How many adults in our geographic region have some or no college, but no four-year degree?” I confirmed that the number, according to recent research, was approximately 50,000. “Good,” he said, “then you’re even!”

Of course, we weren’t. Neither of us was necessarily ahead of the other, and neither of us had an easy path, but we faced very different challenges.

The biggest challenge facing the traditional operation is competition. The list we bought was not exclusive. Those names were available to any institution with the money to pay for them—which was most institutions. We invested in colorful and cleverly-worded mailers, as did our competitors. The result was a landslide, an avalanche of mail falling into the mailboxes of prospective students. Most of them may be heading to college on the assembly line of traditional higher education, but the process of convincing them to choose our institution above all others was daunting.

On the non-traditional side, the challenge can be a profound lack of momentum. Of the 50,000 potential students, we can assume that maybe a few thousand entered the market this year to replace a few thousand that exited. The overwhelming bulk of the population are people who rejected our earlier advances. They are adults entrenched in their lives with responsibilities and joys. Whereas the issue in recruiting traditional students is competition between schools, the problem with recruiting non-traditional students is competition between any school at all and the relative comfort of those students’ current lives.

A second key problem with recruiting non-traditional students is finding them. The list that my colleague purchased came with email and physical addresses along with phone numbers. Replicating this type of contact information is difficult on the non-traditional side. Moreover, prospective traditional undergraduate students cluster at high schools, sports fields and standardized test administrations. They are found in significant numbers at predictable times and locations. Prospective non-traditional students are less likely to congregate in accessible patterns. They must be found. Some will self-identify, but many more will not. Most prospective adult students don’t know that is what they are. They have to be informed and convinced that they are indeed students-in-waiting. Thus, we are looking to identify students who cannot even identify themselves.

Those outside of enrollment management might underestimate the complexity of recruiting. Both non-traditional and traditional recruiting is intensely complicated, requiring science and art. While the pursuit of either population is thorny, they are complex in different ways.

Recruiting traditional undergraduates is more than selling academic programs. It is essential to know the ins and outs of majors—often dozens or scores of them—but it is also critical to know about every aspect of student life. Traditional students are not only interested in outcomes and life after university, they want to know about the experience of life at the university. Furthermore, it is not only the prospective students who must be served. Parents have their own concerns and agendas, and they are often the chief decision maker. Relationships with guidance counselors also hang in the balance. A traditional recruiter offers knowledge, wisdom, encouragement and attention to all constituents. This would be a challenge if it applied to every student who enrolls, but it applies to every traditional student who is admitted. College-bound high school students typically apply to multiple schools and then choose among the institutions that offer enrollment. Recruiters often must work with 10 or more students to win a single enrolled student. The volume multiplied by the complexity equals a relatively short professional lifespan for traditional recruiters.

Non-traditional students are often more focused on the academic and professional aspects of college. The experience is not inconsequential, but they need hard and fast information about how their program of choice will fit into their lives and how their lives will change after they finish. These students do not demand as much breadth of knowledge, but they require more depth. Unlike traditional students, non-traditional students often apply to a single school, so there is less danger of spending time on a prospective student who chooses another school. On the other hand, these students often choose to maintain their status quo and not enroll anywhere—a more heartbreaking outcome in several respects. Recruiters of non-traditional students also have many relationships to maintain—the spouses and employers of their students, for example. A key difference between traditional and non-traditional student recruiting is the pace. Traditional students who plan on enrolling in college spend months on exploration, application and decision; non-traditional students may find a school and make an enrollment decision in an hour. The recruiter must be prepared to help the prospective non-traditional student when the student needs it. Traditional recruiting is a marathon; non-traditional recruiting is a never-ending series of sprints.

The bottom line is that neither group has it easy. The jobs are different because the populations have different qualities, patterns and needs. Both types of students are essential for the financial and intellectual health of a school. The first step to winning these students is to appreciate the distinctions between them and how that should impact enrollment operations.

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