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Three Ingredients to Standing Out in the Adult Student Marketplace

The EvoLLLution | Three Ingredients to Standing Out in the Adult Student Marketplace
Flexibility, sincere appreciation for adults and a focus on keeping costs low are critical ingredients to differentiation in the adult student marketplace.

As the size of high school graduating classes decreases in many parts of the country, the competition to attract non-traditional students has become increasingly intense. Although adult learning theory has advanced significantly and many colleges and universities understand how to advise, teach and retain adult students once they recruit them, attracting the attention of non-traditional students is much more of a challenge.

Obviously, academic program array is fundamental to any successful academic endeavor. In my experience, adult students most often desire practical, applied degrees that have immediate implications for their careers. However, many adult students either need any degree for career advancement/change or they have no immediate application for their degree in mind. As such, program arrays with a majority of applied programs that can demonstrate their impact on the careers of adult students, mixed with programs focused more on general studies resonate with the largest numbers of adult students.

For most adult students, the time and financial resources that it takes to earn a degree are of considerable concern. Beyond program array, over which many of us have little control, there seem to be three factors that allow certain colleges and universities to address these concerns and more effectively engage adult students. All three factors have at their foundation a genuine appreciation for and the uniqueness of the adult student experience.

1. Flexibility

Those institutions that offer the greatest flexibility are destined to stand out. Although flexibility in delivery is the most essential—for example, offering courses in online, hybrid, interactive video and other formats—flexibility in engagement is also essential. This is to say, things like letting adult students dictate the amount of contact with advisors that they receive, and offering flexibility in accepting transfer and other earned credit to the program are essential.

2. Appreciation

Demonstrating a sincere appreciation for the fact that adults continuously learn outside the classroom through work and life experience sets successful adult student programs apart. Active, accessible and generous prior learning assessment/credit for prior learning programs, including programs that award credit for military, are strong selling points. Not only do they reduce the time to degree and cost of the program, they send a clear message to adult students that the institution values their life-long learning experiences.

3. Cost

Finally, since financial aid is often less of an option for many adult students, the “cost to degree” is key. Programs that allow for differential tuition models or academic structures that reduce costs (e.g., some competency-based programs) inevitably stand out in the crowded market.


Despite all of this, a substantial percentage of adult students engage with a college or university that has a campus within 100 miles from where they live (even if the program is delivered online). Given that most adult students do not plan on moving immediately after completing a degree, the cachet of the regional university can’t be overlooked. In addition, even the most adult-centered colleges and universities need to invest generously in creative, intentional and persistent marketing and advertising.

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