Recruiting Adult Students: A Playbook for Enrollment Success

This blog post about how to recruit and enroll adult students was partly inspired by our work with forward thinking clients like Kathy Groves and Emily Horstman at William Woods University, Jacqui Spicer and DaRon Hairston at Baker College, Mollie Cecere at Carlow University, Brad Sims and Dianne O’Neill at Capitol Technology University, and Karen Nichols when she was at Limestone University.

In increasing and significantly growing enrollment for adult programs for the past 25 years for over 25 colleges and universities, we have learned two things: First, students can’t buy your programs or buy-into your college unless they can find you; Second, you can’t bore students into enrolling in your college. Adult students are a very special breed of people. Life changed course and they couldn’t complete college, or they now see the realities of working life their younger selves couldn’t see before. Thus begins a new internal battle.


1. Acknowledge the Psychic Battle of Hope and Doubt

On one side of this timeless battle, the chariots of hope gallop forward. Ambition simmers in them. Stars are lining up. The adults students are ready to make the leap. 

On the other side, the demons of doubt rise: Am I too old? Have I been out of school too long? Am I qualified? Will I be able to keep up? Can I get there? Can I afford it? Will I be able to balance my job and college? Will I fail?

It’s against this backdrop that colleges offer adult programs, adult degrees, and adult degree completion programs. Here is a playbook for creating successful adult programs that we’ve developed that has brought prosperity to many colleges.

2. Offer Adult Degrees in Ideal Settings

A good beginning is half of success. Offer your adult programs in locations that are convenient for adult students. Many colleges offer their programs at employers’ premises. We once served a college which created ad-hoc centers in geographies where they could find a sufficient number of peers willing to form a cohort interested in obtaining an education degree. Some colleges have combined their offerings with employer job training. In dense metropolises, colleges offer adult programs on their own campuses. To accommodate adult students, some colleges will even offer child care.

3. Offer Adult Programs in Ideal Formats and Starts

Formats too determine the long term success of adult education offerings. To serve adult students, colleges have constructed a large variety of formats: on campus, synchronous online, asynchronous online, hybrid and low-residency. If you offer online programs, give a technology orientation seminar so students are able to be effective from the very start.

Adult students like frequent starts for courses, ideally every 8 to 12 weeks, and need the flexibility to pause and restart without penalty. They also prefer evening and weekend options for synchronous programs.

Analyze your situation and offer the right formats and right number of starts.


4. Develop Personas and Identify Market Segments

Certain groups tend to not only seek out, but stay to complete adult degrees. These include immigrants, women, Hispanics and African Americans, veterans, parents of teenage and grown children, adults who have been involved in previous efforts at basic skills education, self study, or vocational skill training, and goal-oriented adults.

5. Write Messaging That’ll Resonate With Adult Students

Speak with one brand voice to various audiences, but strike different notes for each segment of adult students. Messages that tend to resonate with adult students include hints of “Flexible”, “Supportive”, “It’s never too late to learn” and a dozen or so more.

6. Raise Awareness of the Program

Adult student recruitment cycles are perhaps the longest ones in higher education. Deploy a combination of word of mouth and integrated marketing campaigns:

  • Plant seeds and spread them by word of mouth from happy students and alumni. Since adult student alumni are some of the most passionate brand ambassadors for colleges, ask them for help.
  • Ensure the college is found on page one of Google, locally and regionally for all programs, and nationally for distinct programs.
  • Keeping the 75-100 mile radius rule in mind, invest in paid advertising and social media including Google, Instagram and YouTube. Drive paid traffic to high-fidelity story landing pages that infuse facts with brand persuasion.
  • To remind prospects, use traditional advertising such as billboards, posters, flyers and signs at bus stops and public places. Don’t waste your precious marketing dollars on newspapers, but if your budget permits, consider running regional radio and TV ads.
  • Use promotions and special offers to motivate prospects to take action sooner than they had planned.
  • Activate high touch contact strategies for engaging with prospects.
  • Perfect your website, because it’s the cornerstone of conversions and should be easy to read, understand and navigate. Be transparent about pricing, starts, modality, locations, and support services. Merchandise hope with testimonials and student/alumni stories.


7. Help Students Establish Goals

Since students with a clear purpose tend to complete the degrees, find out about students’ goals for education as early as possible in the admissions cycle and help them develop an action plan to achieve them. Develop ways for them to see success early in the program.

8. Support Learning and Motivation

Help adult students develop accurate perceptions of their personal competencies. Use assessment tools to provide clear, specific and accurate feedback – with constructive recommendations for improvement. Teach them how to be comfortable with failure and setbacks, and show them how to develop resilience by overcoming the challenges. Instill a sense of agency by giving them choices for projects and homework assignments. Offer tutoring and study groups for adults struggling with any foundational skills.

9. Make it Easy for Them to Succeed 

Designate counselors and coaches who assist with registration, scheduling, waiting lists as well as transportation, child care, work-school balance, health issues, and psychological support.


10. Strategies for Improving Retention and Persistence

Knowing that one in every three adults drops out within four months of starting a program, here are some retention strategies that successful adult programs are using:

  • Tighten “first encounter” experiences with programs.
  • Establish a student orientation for new students.
  • Welcome students with a letter, text or phone call. 
  • Develop an Individual Education Plan followed by regular student conferences.
  • Engage them with project learning.
  • Arrange for students to have contact with student role models or pair students to help one another.
  • If possible, provide direct services, such as child care or transportation assistance.
  • Collaborate with social-service agencies.
  • Check up on adult students when they don’t show up for class.
  • Offer career counseling and provide assistance with placement.
  • Find ways to celebrate their progress and key milestones.
  • Develop a culture of empathy, acceptance and support.


11. Measure Progress.

Enrollment growth, retention rate and graduation rate are the ultimate measures of your efforts to attract, engage and retain adult students. If a college delivers on the promises marketing makes, then the right-fit students will show up, be happy with their choice and complete the program. Colleges which hand-hold newly enrolled students through from the very start all the way to graduation and beyond tend to be the most prosperous.

If you are seeking a higher education marketing agency to grow your adult student enrollment, view our enrollment marketing capabilities and consider partnering with us.