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Five Ways to Succeed in the Growing Adult Student Market

The EvoLLLution | Five Ways to Succeed in the Growing Adult Student Market
Strategically approaching the adult student marketplace by targeting high-success prospects and sharing messages they want to hear will make a big impact on growing adult enrollments.

Spend an evening watching television or surfing the net and count the number of commercials and ads targeted to adults returning to college with a promise of personalized education, offering flexible pathways, self-paced and competency-based options, acceptance of prior learning, and everything else. There’s a reason universities are trying to reach this population; out of the total university student population in 2012, adults made up 40 percent and that number is expected to continue to rise as the population of 18 to 22-year-old learners shrinks.[1], [2]

Yet, many of us are asking, “Where are these adults and how do we get them?” For example, according to Lumina Foundation, over 50 percent of Pennsylvanians between the ages 25-64 have a high school education or some college but no degree.[3] That is a huge potential pool of students. Yet, there are 259 institutions of higher education contending for students in Pennsylvania alone. If you ask your local industry and public education administration for their top postsecondary education providers, you will typically hear two online providers with the local college running third. Even in your own regional market, you may find yourself being squeezed out.

We all know the unique characteristics and needs of adult learners. We all know their barriers and personal incentives for returning to college. Many of us have formed targeted enrollment strategies for adult students. Yet the question remains: How do you personalize the educational experience for adults and stay competitive in a marketplace where the playing field is not always level?

1. Understand and Focus on Your Strengths

It’s important to capitalize on what you do well. Talk to your adult students. Why did they choose you? Are there services you do a great job of providing? Are there majors that are very adult friendly in their offerings, advising and placement? Should you invest in off-campus facilities where adults can get a degree in their backyard/neighborhood in the evenings or on the weekend, stopping in and out as other priorities dictate? Can you personalize an education pathway for adults by creating degree completion programs? How flexible are you with transfer credit?

While your students will tell you what you are doing well if asked, they will be quick to tell you what is not working for them. Take steps to reduce your gaps in services (flexible scheduling, designated spaces for adults, childcare, etc.) to further endear your institution to these students.

2. Target Students Likely to Succeed

Go after your most likely completers: adults or former students who have taken credits with your institutions but have not finished. Nationwide, 22 percent of adults have some college experience but no credential. That’s more than 36 million Americans.[4] This is low hanging fruit. Complete a targeted assessment of likely completers and reach out to them with personalized communications, assistance and pathways to degree completion.

3. Tell Your Adult Student Stories

Adults will attract adults with like-minded journeys. Remember to be outcome-driven and communicate this information to your current and prospective students. Adults need to know there will be a pay-off in the end. They will invest their limited time and dollars if they are satisfied with your program of study and your services. The two greatest detractors of adult satisfaction are lack of value for tuition paid and getting the “run-around” when seeking information and services.

4. Shape the Institution for Adult Students

Look to your internal advocates and champions of adult students to continue to question university policies and procedures for adults. What works for full-time 18-year-old residential students does not work for the part-time, 34-year-old adult students with families and jobs. Be conscience of that and be willing to stand up in a meeting for those students. Be relentless in helping faculty, student support staff, and administrators appreciate the differences and the need to take a different approach for adult students.

5. Offer More Ongoing Education Opportunities

Finally, there are many adults who have a passion for life-long learning. They continue to read, think differently, and seek new solutions. Go after your alumni to continue their pursuits in niche ways (post-bachelor certificates, post-masters continuing education, non-credit offerings).


We, adults, are all on a journey. Whether it is a career or education journey, we look to personalize it and make it our own to get the most value from it. Maybe your institution will not appear on an evening television commercial but each of us can capitalize on what we do well and let those successful adult students tell the story for you in a venue that makes sense for the institution. Just as adults are looking for personalized education, aren’t we as institutions and continuing education units looking for personalized delivery, a personal touch and an enduring passion?

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[1] Lumina Foundation, “A Stronger Nation though Higher Education: Annual Report from Lumina Foundation”, 2014. Accessed at

[2] Caralee Adams, “Number of High School Graduates to Decline by 2022, NCES Predicts,” Education Week, March 4, 2014. Accessed at

[3] Lumina Foundation

[4] Ibid

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