Published on 2012/11/16

The Similarities and Differences of Marketing to Adult and Traditional-Age Students

Whether you’re appealing to adult students or traditional-age high school graduates, quality education is going to be a major factor in their decision to enroll. However, adult students are far more focused on the career implications of their education than 18-22 year old learners.

The following interview is with Thomas Gibbons, the Dean of the School of Continuing Studies at Northwestern University and the President of UPCEA. As the student demographic changes, higher education institutions must be cognizant of the different groups of prospective students looking for the right college or university to suit their needs. In this interview, Gibbons speaks about the differences and similarities between marketing to traditional-age and adult students.

1. What are the biggest differences between what traditional-age students look for in a college or university, and what adult students look for?

The working adult student is pragmatic and focused primarily on career outlook and advancement. They have a more developed sense of what it takes to succeed in the workplace and specific goals of where they want their education to take them.

2. What are the similarities? Are there any areas where traditional-age and adult students share values when looking for an institution?

I think all students care about high quality instruction, a valuable investment of their time. I think that transcends traditional students and meets the needs of traditional students and adult students.

3. In that sense, we’re really looking at reputation and how the degree is going to be functional in terms of one’s career?


4. And what about distance education students? What are they looking for when seeking out a college or university?

A credential that makes them more valuable in the marketplace. Fitting education into their existing life and lifestyle.

5. What kinds of strategies work best for colleges or universities looking to attract adults to their campus?

Our experience shows quality, relevance, value. What are the learning outcomes, skills that will be mastered? Show me the demand in the marketplace, leverage student success stories and faculty achievements; again quality.

As far as specific tactics, education searches begin online; so investing in an optimized and relevant web presence is key. Having knowledgeable staff at the other end of the inquiry is essential to answer questions and address concerns about returning to school.

6. Do these same strategies work to attract distance students?

Yes, absolutely. The importance of your online presence is even greater. Website functionality, organic and paid search results, online advertising, timely and knowledgeable customer service is very important as you draw the students from your website who show an interest. To be able to have knowledgeable customer service folks who can answer questions in an informed, timely way is critically important.

7. So it really comes down to making sure that your in-house staff are capable of really serving whatever needs come through the door when it comes to questions or when it comes to folks looking for a little more information.

Yes, and also their availability and their ability to get back to the student in a timely way.

8. Are there any major missteps you would warn universities against when competing for adult student enrollments?

I would say pay attention to fit. Programs and students need to be a good fit for each other to produce and then leverage success. When you run ads and from where, you generate leads that need to fit with your institutional brand.

I really strongly feel that fit is critical. Where do you want your brand to be, what kind of students are you trying to attract? I think that to not pay attention to that can jeopardize your institution’s brand and reputation.

9. Is there anything that you would like to add about strategies that go behind attracting adult students that are either similar or different to those that an institution would use to attract a traditional-age student?

I do think that there are these similarities as to quality. All our students who are coming to Northwestern University are looking for the brand of our university—the high-quality brand—the key faculty, talented faculty. I don’t see that as unique to adults, I don’t see that as unique to traditional students and I don’t see it unique to just on-the-ground or online students.

I think where there is a divergence is that you ultimately have got to market to adult students who have more of an eye towards career and advancement. They are much more pragmatic than the traditional, younger day student. I think that that’s something one must continually keep in mind when attempting to market to an older population.

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Readers Comments

Helena DeVries 2012/11/16 at 12:01 pm

Having competent customer service people, and a customer service program with a mandate to reply promptly to all inquiries, is, I agree, CRUCIAL. Regardless of how well you run an internet/social media campaign to draw students to your school (especially adult learners), they are going to want to know more and they are going to tend to want to speak to a human being to address their questions. Adult students more than other demographics tend to, first of all, expect a certain standard of customer service in anything they do, and nothing moreso than the supplementary education they may choose to pay for. Second of all, they are more likely to have very specific and targeted questions to address their needs and their goals. These two factors demand highly competent customer service reps, as well as a customer service program whose number one priority is promptness and availability.

Many universities let this go by the wayside, and the result is dozens and dozens of frustrated potential students. The “line and hook” thrown out by a marketing campaign, if it lures in a customer, is fragile and delicate; it can be broken off at the smallest setback. But it can also be solidified by well-placed efforts, such as an effective customer service team (particularly in the case of adult learners).

Phil Maurice 2012/11/16 at 8:15 pm

It’s interesting that the college’s brand is such a major influencer when it comes to adult students picking an institution. I thought adults were more focused on the content of a degree than the name on the diploma, but I suppose if you’re trying to impress potential employers, the name is as important (if not more important) than the content

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