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Using Intentional Inclusion to Boost Equity – and Enrollment

If a school bases outreach programs on past figures of who attends college, they are not only overlooking potential students, but are perpetrating the exclusion of underserved communities.
If a school bases outreach programs on past figures of who attends college, they are not only overlooking potential students, but are perpetrating the exclusion of underserved communities.

One of the central tenets of serving adult learners is meeting them where they are. But without good data, there’s a risk that higher ed recruiting efforts may instead be looking where they used to be. About two years ago, Jack MacKenzie founded CollegeAPP to reduce that risk. His approach uses predictive modeling principles to identify and engage prospective adult students. This use of data analytics was pioneered about a decade ago during sophisticated national political campaigns. Although the techniques have changed and now play central marketing roles throughout the private sector, that is not the case in higher ed. There, predictive modeling tends to be weighted by outdated data — sometimes as old as 10 years. The fact that higher ed faces declining enrollment while nearly every state formalizes postsecondary attainment goals only underscores the folly of looking to obsolete performance models to deliver new results. 

As it turns out, declining enrollment numbers have implications not only for engagement and recruiting but also for redressing systemic inequities in college access. During our annual conference, MacKenzie joined me in a pre-conference workshop where we discussed recruiting adult learners and the importance of using an equity-minded approach. CAEL believes equity is imperative in the design of adult learner-focused initiatives. Adults’ reasons for pursuing education – and issues that may be standing in their way – are broad and complex. 

More recently, CAEL expanded the discussion during a conversation with MacKenzie and Frank Gerdeman, director of the ADVANCE Lake Tahoe Adult Education Consortium (ADVANCE), a CAEL institutional member. ADVANCE recently partnered with CollegeAPP to assist its mission of supporting a transformative and equitable culture of lifelong learning for adult learners. Based at Lake Tahoe Community College, ADVANCE convenes local businesses, community organizations, school districts, and other organizations in California and Nevada to cultivate diverse education and training pathways for adults.

Before one can tailor messages to recruit adult learners, it’s important to understand what strategies are effective in reaching them. The surveys that power CollegeAPP’s predictive analytics ask adult learners a series of simple questions that can be completed in about three minutes. The questions determine intent and preferences for obtaining education or training in the next two years, ensuring a forward-looking focus. Although each survey opens a “person level” window into the perspectives of prospective adult learners, the individual data can be aggregated to pinpoint and cross reference demographic trends and proclivities. 

Such factors have only grown in relevance amid the 5.1 percent decline in postsecondary enrollment since fall of 2019. That equates to 938,000 students. Yet CollegeAPP’s survey data detected an ironic counter-trend during this same period. In 2020, they showed that 20 percent of respondents intended to enroll in education or training. In 2021, that share increased to 24 percent. That equates to 9.2 million adults.

What accounts for this disparity? It goes back to the importance of looking forward. When schools structure outreach strategies around past models of who goes to college, they not only overlook potential students, they perpetuate the systemic exclusion of underserved communities. CollegeAPP data show that Black and Hispanic adults are more than twice as likely as White adults to have enrollment intentions. In fact, nearly half of the 30 million U.S. adults with predicated intent to pursue postsecondary education or training are Black or Hispanic. Yet traditional higher ed outreach efforts often miss minority students because they don’t look like the people who traditionally went to college. 

Focusing on present-day intent can help institutions widen the scope of their engagement while tightening outreach efficiency. In an excellent example of this, ADVANCE is applying predictive analytics to connect with adults who could benefit from its English language learning programs. In the past, ADVANCE mailed around 30,000 postcards promoting the programs. Now it uses individual-level survey data to connect with adults who intend to pursue education soon. Using this approach, a recent ADVANCE campaign engaged about 100 adults who spoke English as their second language. It was as effective as previous mass communication efforts while consuming fewer resources.

Reaching populations that have been historically barred from access can identify opportunities for qualitative improvements that transcend quantitative enrollment challenges. Gerdeman shared that he and his colleagues have compared the aspirations and interests of newly identified adult learners with ADVANCE program offerings to identify program gaps and oversupplies. Although labor market information is an important source of data as well, he stresses that relying solely on it can result in offerings that look great on paper but that few use. This is why CAEL is leading national and sector-specialized initiatives to help learners navigate complex career pathways that connect them to rewarding careers aligned with their interests, ambitions, and aptitudes.

Similarly, Gerdeman believes supplementing labor market data with the adult learner survey data will bolster the partnerships between educators and employers that are critical to workforce development. He notes that for the past 20 years, every college expressed an intention to improve access to underserved students. For him, linking those intentions with the intentions of adult learners themselves completes the missing link.

MacKenzie describes this strategic use of predictive analytics as intentional inclusion. It’s a mindset he says is needed to shift institutional thinking from supply-side, which focuses on education services, to student-centered, which focuses on adult learners. There’s no question that higher ed has improved in areas we know are important to adult learners. These include work-relevant programming, credit for prior learning, and incremental credentials that stack into degree programs. But an exclusive focus on educational infrastructure can overlook the very students who need – but lack – access to them. Challenges with child care and other obstacles have long forced adult learners to choose between fulfilling education and everyday needs. Because of them, even free college can fall short of ensuring aspirations become achievements for adult learners.

Predictive models are already helping Gerdeman tailor offerings to create future pathways for previously marginalized adults. The adjustments are based on feedback that wouldn’t have existed in the past, because it comes from adults who want to participate but hadn’t been present. Including their voices can help institutions overcome selection biases. As Gerdeman succinctly points out, if you only ask students if a 6 p.m. start time works, they are likely to say it will because they’re there at 6 p.m. While class scheduling may seem like a small detail, the point is that intentional inclusion should remain top of mind in all of our thinking. 

Whether it’s class schedules, advising services, or labor market outcomes, adult learners who aspire to be college students need to be at the center of these decisions. When we realize that, we realize that intentional inclusion affects so much more than marketing and recruitment. It’s at the core of aligning academic offerings with the latest real-world needs. That, of course, ultimately leads to more enrollments. As MacKenzie likes to say, CollegeAPP occupies a space right between smart business and social impact. Both CAEL and ADVANCE agree: it’s no surprise that meeting learners where they are lands you in a good place.

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