Does Higher Ed’s Value Proposition Resonate with Adult Learners?

Does Higher Ed’s Value Proposition Resonate with Adult Learners?

Recent higher education trends have made it clear that now more than ever, colleges and universities must have successful strategies for engaging adult learners. 

The US birth rate has declined steadily over the past decade, leading to an inevitable reduction in traditional college enrollees aged 18 to 24. There is also an increasing number of students simply opting out of the college experience, choosing alternative paths instead. 

Higher education institutions face an uphill battle to grow or even maintain enrollment numbers—and focusing more of their marketing and enrollment efforts on adult learners is one viable solution.

Adult Learners: The New College Freshmen?

Data from the National Student Clearinghouse, as presented by UPCEA’s very own Jim Fong, reveals that there is a tremendous opportunity to attract adult learners. The total addressable market (TAM) of adult enrollment candidates is estimated at over 242 million, including:

  • 93 million adults aged 25+ with a degree
  • 39 million adults with some college but no degree
  • 70 million adults with a high school degree or GED
  • 40 million adults with no high school degree or GED

The pool of potential adult learners far exceeds the traditional higher education market, which totals a mere 19.3 million potential students for undergraduate and graduate programs combined. Furthermore, traditional student enrollments in undergraduate and graduate programs decreased by 4.1% from 2021 to 2022 alone.

It’s safe to say that adult learners who return to school for reasons such as upskilling, changing careers, or pursuing micro-credentials have become an indispensable population.

Understanding the Adult Learner’s Perspective on Higher Ed

While adult learners present new enrollment opportunities, it’s important to acknowledge that they are definitively different from traditional college freshmen

If higher education institutions wish to successfully expand adult learning programs, they must embrace and convey a compelling value proposition. From branding to marketing to enrollment strategies, the methods for drawing adult enrollees are in need of an overhaul.

Competition for adult learners is high

As any marketer knows, a large TAM doesn’t automatically translate to high adoption rates. Higher ed has long relied on traditional enrollees to grow enrollments, leaving the adult learning market open to competitors offering alternative education pathways such as corporate training, private online courses, and intensive boot camps. 

As the number of college freshmen heads off the demographic cliff, the adult learning space is certain to become more imperative—and more competitive. Any school that aims to stay ahead of the pack needs to dive deep and build a new understanding of what adult students want—and why. 

Adult learners have unique priorities

Though the adult learning demographic is hardly monolithic, this category of prospective students does share several characteristics.

  • They prioritize professional outcomes. Adult learners care more about the end results offered by new learning and less about the “rite of passage” experience prioritized by many traditional students.  
  • They look for program reputation over school brand. While college freshmen tend to emphasize brand value of an institution, adult learners are more interested in reputable programs with verifiable outcomes.
  • They scrutinize prerequisites. Adult learners value their resources differently from younger students and are uninterested in investing time or money into requirements that aren’t directly tied to their career goals. Seeking the most efficient path forward, adult learners may steer clear of programs with prerequisites that will extend their timeline.
  • They want funding solutions. Adult learners are deeply attuned to ROI and consider cost a major factor when researching education options. This demographic looks for clear pricing with explicitly outlined funding sources, such as scholarships, grants, financial aid, and even continuing education coverage through a current employer. 
  • They desire flexibility. Adult learners rarely enjoy the luxury of enrolling in a full-time educational program. Members of the over-25 demographic frequently juggle work, family, and community obligations that preclude the full-time learning younger students often embrace. Adults show a preference for online or hybrid programs as well as asynchronous or self-paced programs that allow them to customize the learning experience to their current life season. 

Attracting Adult Learners: Start with a Fresh Strategy

To appeal to adult learners, higher education institutions must examine—and perhaps rebuild—their outreach programs from the ground up. The old messages aren’t working on newer generations of adult learners, and schools need to respond accordingly.

1. Evaluate your current marketing and enrollment strategies 

Who are you reaching with your current marketing and enrollment efforts? Does your messaging exclude crucial segments of the adult learning demographic? Are the adult learner’s priorities reflected throughout your marketing creative and program curriculum?

2. Develop a message that resonates with this new audience

How can you fine-tune your message to meaningfully connect with adult learners? Or perhaps you need to begin with fresh market research and analysis of your programming. 

Adult learners are savvy shoppers with high standards for how they spend their time and money. From ad copy to class structure, you must speak directly to the adult learner’s mind and emotions.

3. Streamline the enrollment process

How frictionless is your enrollment process? Every form, click, call, email, or “next step” is work—and that’s especially true for adults who already have hectic lives. 

Removing excessive points of friction from your enrollment process could mean the difference between gaining a new student or losing them before they even reach the point of purchase. Though it’s true that some friction can serve to disqualify “poor fit” prospects, unnecessary friction will only dissuade a prospective student who may have been a great fit for your program. 

Adult Learners are within Your Reach

Colleges and universities have an imperative to extend their educational outreach beyond high school graduates to the adults who comprise the largest segment of our country’s population. If these institutions truly believe learning should be a lifelong endeavor, they must make it accessible and desirable to the millions of adults who are hungry for lifelong learning.

Get to know what adult learners care about, what motivates them, and how education can lend new purpose to the lives of those with many more decades of life to live. If you align your marketing and programming to the needs of this ever-present community, you’ll be setting your school up for ongoing success.

See how MindMax can help.