Gaining Insights into Adult Learners: Looking at Findings from the Adult Prospect SurveyHoward Lurie | Principal Analyst of Online and Continuing Education for Eduventures Research, National Research Center for College and University Admissions (NRCCUA)
Evo: What is the Adult Prospect Survey?
Howard Lurie (HL): Our Adult Prospect Survey is a nationally representative annual survey which we hope will help institutions better understand the adult learning market.
This year, we organized the findings by three program levels: adult learners seeking certificates and non-credit courses; adult learners seeking undergraduate degrees; and adult learners seeking graduate degrees.
We took those program levels and ran a latent class analysis to develop a set of ten behavioural and preferential mindsets based on those different program levels. Those mindsets include: attitudes towards the pricing of certificates and degree programs; modality (online versus blended and on-campus learning); and everything from enrollments to student support services.
Evo: What are the most common roadblocks that adult learners face when they’re trying to find and register for courses online?
HL: In the survey, we found the term “common roadblock” to be something of a misnomer. Common roadblocks vary depending on multiple factors: financial stability, employment status, age, gender, location, distance from the closest school. Put simply, the roadblocks that adult learners face depend upon who they are, and who they are depends not only upon demographics but also on a whole other range of factors that we’ve drawn out through our ten mindsets.
As a general trend, we see adult learners trying to balance four points on a compass: personal fulfillment/career advancement, and immersion/convenience. You have to consider roadblocks in terms of balancing those four priorities.
On one axis you have motivation, with adult learners who are looking for career advancement at one end of the spectrum, and adult learners who are looking for personal fulfillment on the other. These tend to be older adult learners who have a little more capital and are looking for skills they never had a chance to learn.
On the other axis, you’ve got convenience. It’s a pretty standard assumption that adult learners are looking for convenient programs, but, again, on the other end of the spectrum some are looking for more immersive programs. Often, adult learners equate immersion with speed: “I’d like to devote myself to this online or blended program, because I’m going to put my life and work on hold while I complete it.”
We asked our survey respondents: “What could a school do to increase your chances of enrolling?” Twenty-five percent of our respondents who wanted an undergraduate degree replied, “I want to be able to enroll in a free, online, mini-version of a course, that may be not for credit but gives me a chance to try it out.” When we filtered out to look specifically at undergraduate prospects that are motivated by career advancement, that number doubles. So, that tells us that career-minded, undergraduate-degree-seeking adults are more conscious of things like time and cost. In terms of common roadblocks, then, this shows that they’re going to depend upon a whole different range of characteristics than someone who’s looking for a course for reasons of personal fulfillment.
Evo: You mentioned that there are so many variations depending on what the student wants, but it sounds like transparency within institutions can help an adult learner clarify their motivations. Is that the case?
HL: I think it’s essential for institutions to be as transparent as possible about their offerings. The filter through which adult learners are considering online programs is: “How much will it disrupt my current job, family and life commitments?”
The second thing to consider is that there’s a very transactional nature to adult learners. The next question adult learners ask is: “What will it do to move me on the career ladder in my current field; or, if I want to switch careers, how well will it open doors for me?” We did a pricing analysis for our most recent research and found some interesting patterns for the calculus that the adult population goes through for value and cost.
For example, adult learners who are looking for more academically rigorous programs – which might be an MBA or a terminal degree – are going to have a different pricing sensitivity, and maybe a higher tolerance of higher price per credit courses, than folks who have less time and know exactly what they want from a course. Adult learners are very outcome oriented.
Evo: Following that thread, how does the Amazon experience become relevant for college and university administrators who are trying to improve their conversion of prospective students to enrolled students?
HL: This is a dilemma, because our research suggests that the adult learner as consumer might be looking for a certain type of transactional online buying experience, but schools are not necessarily going to provide that, and there are a number of reasons why.
I don’t think higher education is a big fan of the metaphor of an “Amazon experience.” It’s always a challenge to apply one commercial model from one industry to another.
We suggest that schools look to understand the mindset of how adults construct and make decisions, and then look at their own institutional capabilities. What can that school actually provide?
An adult learner is looking for transparency and an institution should acknowledge that, but is Amazon-type experience a strong predictor for a high-quality learning experience? Learning as we know is complicated but not impossible to dissect into its component parts, but it’s undoubtedly more complicated than a transactional commercial experience.
I understand both sides of the dilemma. I understand how adults think and want to transact, but I also understand how institutions operate. I’m not trying to place a value judgment on a school that says, “Yes, we will provide an online Amazon experience.” There’s no easy solution, because you have to deal with institutional realities.
Evo: For an institution that’s looking to grow its adult learner enrollments, what are some of the critical first steps they need to do to attract and then convert those students?
HL: The first step they should make is to realize that one size is not going to fit all, and that the diversity we’ve uncovered through our research into adult learner mindsets recognizes diversity by modality, diversity based on the perspective towards that modality, and enrollment intensity, meaning that not all adult prospects will have the same ability, willingness, capability and desire to enroll within the same period of time. We did a pretty extensive analysis pricing, and how adult learners balance the value of a program versus its price.
It’s not simply a matter of looking at what the next school down the highway is offering as a competitor. It’s about looking inward as an institution at what your core capabilities are, and responding to those capabilities and priorities. If you’re seeing a high demand for computer science or cyber security but your institution’s strengths lie in business programs, changing courses to meet that cyber demand is not necessarily a winning recipe.
It’s one thing to attract and enroll students, but it’s another to support them. In terms of enrollment intensity, adult learners take a stop-start approach to education, meaning that they may take courses then leave for a period of time to deal with life and work, then re-enroll. Schools need to be cognizant of those new patterns, and break out of the assumption that they’re going to stay for a number of semesters or years.
Evo: When it comes to swirling students, what does an institution need to do to deliver the kind of experience during those bursts of enrollment that will keep lifelong learners coming back over the course of their career?
HL: At a very simple level, institutions should organize their professional development curriculums in ways that relate to their students’ work experience, rather than how the institution itself thinks about the scope and sequence of that particular content. What I mean by that is, when we think of professional programs, a university might have a certain narrative and arc to how you teach, say, accounting, by breaking it down into components. Is that consistent with the experience that your learners are going to have when they become a CPA or an actuary? Schools should look at how students actually use the content in their daily work.
Additionally, they should recognize that, for periods of time, students might come to study, then take a break from the classroom. In that intervening break, they might be sharpening old skills and learning new ones, and the university should lower the barrier to re-entry to recognize those acquired skills when the student returns. We talk about lowering the barrier to entry for students, but we need to highlight lowering the barrier to re-entry. In some cases, that involves acknowledging credits for life and work experiences. We didn’t ask students whether they liked a competency-based experience or an outcomes-driven pedagogy because, to them, that’s just jargon. But when we asked them to describe the features they want to see in continuing education, 35 percent of our undergraduate adult learners responded that they’d like to get credit for things they’ve already learned how to do.
So, rather than rewinding a curriculum back to the place where the tape might begin from the mindset of the faculty, understanding where a student might be coming from is critical.
Similarly, institutions should recognize the time commitments an adult learner can make to education—for example, by aligning course stop and start dates with a local school calendar around which an adult learner’s family schedule might revolve. Universities and colleges assume that adults can take online courses at night, but for many of these folks that’s when they’re making dinner and putting the kids to sleep.
These are simple, tangible things, but they add up in the minds of adult learners because, on the whole, they’re not addressed by institutions. Schools need to take a critical eye to understanding that one size does not fit all. They have to ask: “What are the mindsets of adult learners? How do they make decisions?” That’s the value that I think we’ve brought to this conversation in our research.
Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about what it takes to deliver a positive recruitment experience to adult learners, and what it takes to convert those prospects into students?
HL: Schools need to rethink the student support and career services they provide. Due to the availability of online search engines—LinkedIn, Indeed and GlassDoor being prime examples—the career service dynamic in working population has changed. Our evidence tells us that adult learners are looking for those support services but they don’t necessarily trust that the schools can provide them. I’m not just talking about placement services, it’s more about teaching students how to organize their portfolios so that what they’ve learned in a program dovetails with what employers are looking for. Once students are enrolled in and committed to a program, institutions have to offer them pathways, whether that’s in the form of career changes or career advances, that are realistic. That’s the part of the student life experience that has a lot of room to grow. Students will come back if they know that they’ve been helped in realistic ways, beyond being told that the career services office is down the hall.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Author Perspective: Analyst