Published on 2013/01/22
What Adult Students Want
Institutions must step outside the box to understand and meet the particular challenges faced by non-traditional students in order to attract more adult learners.

Do you think of your institution as adult friendly? More importantly, do prospective adult learners view your institution as adult friendly? Institutions that can satisfactorily address several fundamental concerns many adults have will be successful in facilitating their return to higher education. Adult learners’ concerns can largely be summed up in the following questions:

  1. Do you have what I want?
  2. Can I afford it?
  3. Will it be convenient for me to take classes?
  4. Will I be successful?

Let’s take a closer look at these questions. Firstly, do you offer a variety of in-demand programs that adults are seeking? Not surprisingly, community colleges are enjoying an influx of adult students, as they tend to offer a variety of short-term, in-demand programs. If you encounter adults who are unsure of their area of interest, does your institution offer career services designed to help them choose a program?

Secondly, adults frequently cite cost as a primary barrier to higher education. Whether your institution’s annual tuition is $3,000 or $30,000, do adults clearly understand the difference between price and cost? This is to say, the difference between how much an adult student pays for a class, and what that student will not be able to afford as a result. Offering adult student scholarships and providing tuition payment plans can help overcome this barrier.

Let’s presume your institution has addressed the initial two questions to adults’ satisfaction: you have the programs they want and they can afford to enroll in them. Now, let’s examine the question of convenience: is the program offered in a format that is convenient for adult students? Some programs are, by design, rigid and inflexible. Does your institution offer early-morning and late-afternoon classes? Are classes available in the evenings/on weekends? Are classes offered online? Does your institution allow students to combine these different delivery formats? These are important considerations as adult learners often don’t have the luxury of quitting their job and going to school full-time. Additionally, adults often have a sense of urgency regarding their education. An adult-friendly institution may be able to address this concern by offering accelerated classes.

Finally, the “success” factor can be the most challenging for an institution to address. Do you offer services designed to help students succeed? If you offer free tutoring, promote it! Does your institution offer a free writing center or a free mentoring program? It can’t be a “well-kept secret” that you have a computer center where students can print their papers for free.

To ensure adult students have a “soft landing” as they transition to higher education, be proactive and anticipate their concerns, then address those concerns head-on. Remember, it’s not good enough to provide these services if students aren’t aware of them; make all of your information easy to find on your website. An underlying assumption in our discussion is that a college or university website is the single most important recruiting tool in an institution’s arsenal. Meet with your IT and Marketing staff to create easy shortcuts that will make the adult learner’s experience easier.

This is oversimplified, to be sure. But, if your institution can successfully address these fundamental concerns, you’re well on your way to making the return to higher education less challenging for adults, and they will view your institution as adult friendly.

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Readers Comments

Tyrese Banner 2013/01/22 at 9:20 am

It’s useful to see adult learners’ primary concerns summed up in this way. Each of the four questions identified in the article presents important considerations for an institution. I might add a fifth question, that is, what is the “value added” component of your program?

Research suggests that adult learners, compared to youth learners, tend to be results oriented and problem centered. In other words, the way they approach their education is that they want to see tangible returns on their investment. That means they’re likely to comparison shop, so to speak, when choosing a program. For an institution to be successful in attracting adult learners, it needs to show what it offers that’s unique and unmatched by other institutions (besides low-cost, accessible programs, as all institutions hoping to attract adult learners would be concerned with this). Some “value added” components could be having a strong alumni network or credit granted through prior learning assessment. These would have to be advertised in your recruitment to set your institution apart from the others.

    Ewan Philipps 2013/01/22 at 1:12 pm

    I agree with Tyrese that it’s important to focus on what makes your institution unique, particularly if it’s a large university. My thinking is that community colleges, by nature, are almost always going to have an advantage when it comes to the first three issues raised about programs offered, cost and convenience. Therefore, the fourth issue – success of graduates – would have to be the main selling point for a larger institution. I would say “value added” is an important consideration but it doesn’t have to be a separate question. It functions as part of the fourth concern about student success.

Joe Girard 2014/03/31 at 6:27 pm

Great article! I like that you have summarized the 4 key questions so clearly. I have been in the private post-secondary education market for more than a decade, so I know these questions all too well.

And from a marketing and sales perspective, the “Will I be successful?” is the most important driver of the list because it is the only one that taps into fears and desires.

Too often, post-secondary institutions center their efforts on features and benefits, price, and scheduling, and totally forget that potential students make their decisions on the end result – their goals and vision. I read some of your other posts as well and they are pretty spot on. Great work. – Joe

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