Non-Traditional Learners

The emergence of online education during the past several decades has made attending college and obtaining a degree or credential easier than ever. It has also presented new challenges to institutions that are not only focusing on recruiting traditional students graduating from high school, but marketing to non-traditional students returning to the classroom, albeit virtually. A non-traditional student is defined as one over 25 who is returning to college to complete an undergraduate degree or undertake an undergraduate degree for the first time. Approximately 38 percent of college students in the U.S. would fall into this category.  But these students are not merely defined by age, they are also:

  • Independent of parents for financial aid reasons
  • Have one or more dependents
  • May not have a traditional high school diploma
  • Stopped out of a traditional degree program
  • Employed full time

Because approximately 75 percent of students meet at least one of these points, and over 30 percent meet two, the challenge becomes finding and attracting these prospective students in a meaningful way. That’s not any easy task.

Traditional Messages for Non-Traditional Students

Attending college for an adult learner isn’t about the campus experience, it’s about what’s in it for them. Prospective adult students want to hear about flexibility. This population needs to understand how they can fit school into their existing life commitments. Historically, flexibility has taken on two meanings: it touches on the format of course delivery — online or hybrid — and the time of those classes — evenings or weekends — as these are perceived as more accommodating or flexible. But it doesn’t end there.  Flexibility also means the ability to stop and start the degree as family, work, or financial circumstances dictate. Prospects want to know if they need to take a semester off they can do so without penalty.

Delivering the Message

Adult learners want directness. It’s best to clearly state and demonstrate how your programs are designed for the needs of this audience. Using testimonials from other students with relatable life experiences will resonate with non-traditional students. It’s critical to identify the most likely personas to ensure the message will make an impact.

But flexibility isn’t limited to an individual’s schedule, rather, institutions should also communicate about flexibility across all parts of the student experience — How is financial aid flexible? How are faculty flexible?

Understand the Motivation of Adult Learners and Non-Traditional Students

From an emotional perspective, many adult learners do not approach returning to college to complete a degree with the same motivation or enthusiasm of a high school student looking for a four-year residential experience. As some prospects cut their undergraduate experience short it’s not surprising they harbor negative emotions — shame, fear, apprehension — to the process.

Acknowledging the Emotional Barriers

From a marketing perspective, recognizing and considering these negative emotions is critical.

  • Ensure your marketing materials have a warm, open, and inviting tone.
  • Watch out for intimidating processes — applications, request information forms, or financial aid information. Make everything simple and accessible.
  • Consider low stakes entry points. Some schools host wine and cheese open houses to offer a non-threatening environment to engage these prospects.
  • Use calls to action that push for personal interactions with supportive admissions staff.
  • Provide multiple ways to engage — email, phone, chat, and in-person. These prospects pick the one they feel most comfortable with.

Sharing with Non-Traditional Students

Unlike the glossy brochures and viewbooks produced and shared with the traditional prospective student, marketing to the non-traditional student is much different. Because 85 percent can be found online, it’s important to maximize the digital medium.

Program or Degree Details Are Critical for Adult Learners

Program curriculum is paramount for prospective adult students. Every higher education marketing plan needs to include a budget to build out a robust program section on the website for each program that includes:

  • Program overview
  • Faculty information with terminal degrees
  • Tuition or cost per credit
  • Next start date
  • Admission process
  • Outcomes

Adult students and professional graduate students care less about the overall student experience and more about the quality and rigor of the online experience.

Avoid In-Class Imagery

For obvious reasons, adult learners do not tend to like imagining themselves in the classroom, especially if they are seeking an online learning experience. Likewise, images of students sitting in front of a computer are far less desirable. Non-traditional students are attending a program for a specific reason – whether it’s a new career, a promotion, or even changing jobs, as a result they respond more positively to photography that shows them working in the career or role that they will have after they graduate. Their focus should be on the end results.

Emphasize Accreditation and Non-Profit Status

With the negative press on for-profit schools and the closing of schools like ITT Tech and Corinthian College, prospects are aware of the risks associated with enrolling at a for-profit school. Prospects respond positively to the credibility afforded by a third-party — even when they have never heard of the accrediting body — and a non-profit moniker. Both help prospects feel more comfortable with a school.

Highlight Tuition and Aid

Going to school as an adult, regardless of whether it’s the first time or they are returning, is a major commitment, especially from a financial perspective. Focusing on tuition and aid is critical. Transferred credits mean lower tuition to the prospective adult student.

Focus on Outcomes

For adult learners, outcomes illustrated by alumni testimonials, job placement numbers, or career advancement are a top decision criteria.