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Competing with For-Profits to Attract Adult Students

Given the number of options that adult students have when selecting a college or university to enroll at for their higher education, public institutions must go above and beyond to ensure adult students understand exactly how enrolling with them is advantageous.

A major trend that has fueled enrollments in American colleges and universities for the past decade has been the increase in the number of adults (age 25 and older) seeking an education. Whether to finish a degree they started years ago, to upgrade their professional skills, to change careers, or to re-establish their credentials after serving in the military, adult learners have become a significant part of the higher education landscape. There is every indication that this trend will continue. Most segments of higher education are competing rigorously for these students and have adjusted course schedules, given credit for life experiences, and more recently, have expanded online programs to meet the needs of adult learners. For-profit institutions are increasingly dominating the adult student market, both as a result of their adoption of more innovative approaches to learning and their significantly larger marketing budgets. But there are a few strategies not-for-profit and public institutions can adopt to help level the playing field.

First, colleges and universities need to understand their strengths and know how their programs are meeting the needs and goals of their students. Selective undergraduate colleges and universities, including some of the well-endowed, not-for-profit institutions, have developed their academic programs for the traditional full-time 18-21 year old student who will likely complete a program in four to five years. Most of these institutions serve their students well and probably should not seek to make a major shift in their academic programs in order to attract adult learners, especially with regard to undergraduate programs. Those that offer graduate programs might consider making accommodations such as offering weekend, online or blended programs that would be more convenient for adults. Public four-year colleges, community colleges, and tuition-driven, not-for-profit institutions have likely made accommodations for adult learners, gearing a number of their academic programs to this population. Additionally, professional degree programs in business, health, education, and technology areas have been developed in many cases to become the mainstays of these institutions. They should market these high-quality programs as such to adults.

Second, accommodating active lifestyles is a critical factor in attracting adult learners, especially parents who combine family responsibilities with professional career responsibilities, making for incredibly busy days. For this demographic, enrolling in an academic program will depend upon its fit with their schedules. For-profit institutions have done remarkably well in the past decade to accommodate these students, especially via online learning. Tuition-driven, not for-profit as well as public four-year institutions and community colleges will need to invest in, develop, and maintain their instructional technology infrastructure, including student support services, in order to compete with the for-profits for students interested in pursuing their degrees online. Blended learning options should also be considered for these students.

Third, in addition to providing the appropriate academic programs and technology support, pricing is a major marketing strategy for attracting adult learners. Unlike traditional age students, who make their decisions with lots of assistance from high school guidance counselors and parents, most adults make the decision to attend a college by themselves or perhaps with the advice of a friend, co-worker, or employer. The cost of tuition will be critical. The public four-year and community colleges generally are very competitive because state and local government subsidies bear a portion of their operating expenses. Their tuition rates are much lower than the for-profit institutions and should be used as an important marketing strategy to attract adult learners to their programs. Their marketing should make prospective students aware of financial aid availability with a clear indication that since loans need to be repaid, lower tuition costs will mean lower repayment obligations.

Lastly, the most important marketing strategy for any institution is to demonstrate that the academic programs offered indeed meet the needs of adult learners: higher education has a specific obligation to be honest and not admit any student for any program without making sure that they have the skills to succeed. This has not always been the case; especially for some of the less-than-scrupulous for-profit institutions.

All colleges and universities need to work hard, not just in attracting and admitting adults, but in helping them complete their programs. Support services need to be in place to assist students who might be having difficulty. This being understood, following up on successful alumni and advertising their activities can provide powerful selling points to prospective students. A common marketing tactic is to advertise the success of an individual student on a website, in a brochure, or in an advertisement; but a display of student outcomes showing high graduation rates and robust employment data could be more effective. To achieve this, colleges and universities need to look at how they will add value to the qualities and abilities that their adult students bring to their programs.

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