Understanding Adult Learner Buyer Behavior

Understanding Adult Learner Buyer Behavior

The future for universities is the adult learner

The number of incoming 18-year old freshman is a finite number and decreasing. The number of adults needing ongoing education is increasing and the amount of education and frequency of accessing that education is all increasing. This means the future growing market for many colleges and Universities is the adult learner.

We encourage schools to think in terms of LTV – lifetime value of a student. In the past, schools thought about this in terms of alumni donating money or gifts. In the future, this increased LTV will be driven by how schools stay relevant and engaged in supporting adults as they navigate an everchanging job and career market that will require ongoing education.

Three principles of engagement – Be respectful, be relevant, and be timely!

Adult consumers of educational products and programing are approaching their decision process using the same mentality they use to buy anything on the internet. Therefore, schools need to engage with adult consumers using approaches that map to how these adults are used to making purchasing decisions.

Understanding Adult Learner Buyer Behavior

We suggest these three guiding principles to engage with these prospective students.

  1. Be Respectful. Schools often struggle to personalize their engagement with these adults because they tend to provide that personalization through human labor versus automation tools, which is not particularly scalable.
  2. Provide Relevant Content. Each day we are all flooded with more information and data than we could ever process. Therefore, we all have filters to reduce what we read, view or listen to. The more relevant the content, the more likely people will engage with it.
  3. Be Timely. Be present to prospective students when they are in their consideration phase. This has never been more possible due to all the data, marketing automation, and analytics that are available.

The #1 mistake schools make is they know these things are important, but they seem too hard to do. So, they ignore what they know, or they address these three principles in a fragmented or anemic way.

Motivations of adult learners

Understanding the motivations and life environment of adult learners enables you to better understand their buying behavior. Because of their responsibilities (family, work, kids’ activities, friends, etc.), they value their time significantly.

Adult learners are also looking to advance their career which means they’re looking for credentials that will enable that growth. Sometimes a certificate program meets the need better than a degree program.

Because of these factors, adult learners need flexibility not only when participating in course work, but also in the information-gathering period leading up to enrollment. Help them learn about programs on their own time and remove any potential barriers. Do this by offering, an easy-to-navigate website, program-specific webinars, and provide easy access to a knowledgeable person that can help (via live chat or phone).

Buying behaviors of adult learners

Many prospective students conduct research while at work (during the day). Consider this for the timing of certain activities including fully staffing chat support and phone lines during this time.

Adult students don’t like high sales pressure; in fact, they respond better to thoughtful engagement that helps them take their next “right action.” Is your staff trained on how to interact with this distinct group of individuals?

When prospective students are ready for more information, they want their questions answered quickly. Are you providing answers in a timely fashion? Having an easy-to-navigate website with chat support covers a lot of ground here. Make sure your staff is knowledgeable and can provide the answers prospective students are seeking.

It’s just a matter of time before a prospective student will call you. A lot of prospective adult learners will start off in live chat, but they’ll eventually call if there’s just way too much information about a program to do over live chat. Read our call center advice in this article.

Just like you want to remove barriers leading up to this point, you want to continue to make the process seamless when you hang up the phone. After the call, there are still a few areas that could be sticking points including a monetary or time commitment or not meeting the prerequisite requirements of the program (i.e. bachelor’s degree). Your job is to help uncover those barriers and guide the prospective student on how they might remove them. They may not be ready in this moment in time but with your friendly, helpful and relevant interactions, they may very well remember that and come back to you when they are ready.


Schools can stay relevant by shifting the focus to the adult learner and by rethinking the LTV of a student. At the core, successful colleges and Universities will master the three principles of engagement by being respectful, relevant and timely. Adapt to this distinct group of individuals by providing the programs, flexibility, and information they seek in a timely manner.

Do you have any insight or experience with adult learner buying behavior? We’d love to hear from you. Comment below.