College Freshmen vs. Adult Learners: Two Distinct Decision-Making Processes in Higher Education

College Freshmen vs. Adult Learners: Two Distinct Decision-Making Processes in Higher Education

One of the biggest mistakes higher education marketing departments make is failing to recognize the distinctions between college freshmen and adult learners. 

These two audiences of prospective students are in entirely different phases of their lives, so they inevitably have different criteria for deciding where—and when—to enroll. Understanding their decision-making processes can help schools develop more effective marketing and enrollment strategies.

The College Freshman’s Decision-Making Process

For an incoming college freshman, determining where to attend college is often a family decision, making for a highly complex—and lengthy—enrollment process. 

Many different opinions influence first-year college students’ decisions, from their own peer groups to their parents’. They tend to place great importance on a school’s brand value. 

Unlike adult learners who have already had jobs and careers, most incoming college freshmen aren’t yet clear on what they want to do professionally, so their decision-making centers just as much around the college experience as academic offerings and credentials. 

Ultimately, they’re looking to find a college that’s the right fit for them in their coming-of-age journey. They consider experiential factors such as:

  • The location of the school (e.g., city vs. country, distance from home) 
  • The size of the campus and community 
  • Campus life, including sporting events and other activities

The Adult Learner’s Decision-Making Process

An adult learner’s criteria for enrolling in a school’s program are much different from a first-year college student’s. They prioritize several considerations in their decision-making process:

  • Professional outcome. Adult learners make their decisions pragmatically, placing a high value on the professional outcome. They wonder, “What’s in it for me?” and “How will enrolling in this program help me reach my professional goals?”
  • Prerequisites. These prospective students must consider whether they have the right prerequisites for a program or the credential they hope to obtain.
  • Funding. Adult learners need to know early on whether they can afford a certain program. They’ll have to determine if they can pay for the experience outright or, alternatively, if they can access the funds they need through employers, grants, scholarships, financial aid, and other options.
  • Time commitment. The most important factor in an adult learner’s decision-making processes is usually the time commitment. Many of these individuals are already juggling work and family life—they may not be able to add another 20 hours of class time to their week or commit to a 3-month program.

Ideally, adult learners looking to enroll in a course, program, or certificate should be able to find all of this information easily on a school’s website. The less friction they experience, the more likely they are to make an informed decision quickly—whether it’s going deeper into your school’s enrollment funnel or disqualifying themselves from a program that doesn’t fit their needs.

An Area of Overlap: ROI Considerations

One thing incoming freshmen and adult learners have in common is that they want their education to have a good return on investment (ROI). This demand tracks with evolving trends in higher education in recent decades.

In the 1970s and 1980s, a small percentage of the population attended college. Today, that number is significantly higher—but many people still can’t afford to pursue higher education unless they’re guaranteed a return on their investment.

In fact, ROI is such a critical consideration that the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce—led by recent MindMax podcast guest Dr. Anthony Carnevale—developed an ROI calculator to help students and their families to evaluate potential schools.

There are, of course, some differences between how incoming freshman and adult learners view ROI. For instance, adult learners typically want a faster return, and schools seeking to draw these prospective students would do well to address their need for speed, so to speak. 

If your higher education marketing department could use support targeting adult learners, let’s start a conversation. MindMax has extensive experience marketing to this demographic and can leverage our expertise to help you grow enrollments.