As growth in the traditional 18- to 24-year-old college student market declines, more colleges are turning to nontraditional students to fill their ranks. At the same time, more adults than ever are seeking additional education to diversify their job prospects, increase their incomes, and sometimes fulfill dreams of lifelong learning.
While these two trends nicely align, they also signal that more colleges are competing for these prospects. Schools that never paid much attention to this population now have to, and schools that have historically catered to older students need to step up their game or lose out to unexpected competitors angling for their market share.
A general increase in nontraditional prospects might mean some will drift into your admissions funnel no matter what. But if you want to secure a lasting pipeline of older students, you’ll need to take a more proactive approach. Here are four steps to get you started.
Know your market
Marketing to a new audience requires getting to know it. As with most audiences, there isn’t just one type of traditional student. Ages span from 25 to 99. Prior education varies from incomplete high school to multiple graduate degrees. Family structure can range from a single adult living alone or a single parent raising children to a married empty nester caring for an aging parent.
One thing most adult students have in common though is the need to stay put. Most are working and/or caring for families and need to live close-by. But don’t count on older locals to fill your pipeline. More plentiful online offerings give rooted adults access to courses across the country.
Your school may not be in a position to serve all of these needs well. Evaluate your institution’s strengths against the different needs of this market to find your best fit. Or develop a plan to increase your operational or program assets specifically for segments in this market. Can you provide personalized advising by counselors who understand nontraditional student needs? Do you give academic and technology support outside of M-F, 9-5? Are your programs aligned with key employer needs in your area? Only then can you make a plan to market strategically.
Connect with your audience
Consider the attributes many colleges present to attract teenagers: campus lawns with happy Frisbee players, bustling energy around student org tables decorated with handmade posters, the frenzy and excitement of college sports and color-coded school spirit, and plenty of you’ll-make-friends-here hugs and smiles.
These picture-perfect campus experiences are intended to connect with uncertain, social-life seeking teens. Academics play a role to be sure, but most college marketers know that also connecting on an emotional level can seal the deal.
Consider a few common college taglines too: “find yourself,” “start here – go anywhere,” “it all begins here,” “who will you be?” and “life’s calling.” Slogans often focus on college as the beginning, as the start of real life, the thread of who you will become.
Life plays out differently for nontraditional students. Adult students know who they are and why they’re going back to school, and they have full, big lives already happening. They’re very focused on the credential, the better salary, the new job, the better life.
But schools can still enrich adult students’ lives while educating them. For most colleges, connecting with that mindset means shifting gears.
Think outside the box to create a sense of community and belonging that can increase retention. Consider holding family-friendly campus events on weekends, organize weeknight dinners for evening program cohorts or establish digital communities that enable connection in the wee hours.
Think about shifting gears when it comes to marketing your adult programs as well. Remember that having programs for nontraditional students is not enough to bring them in your door, and promoting the nuts and bolts of your programs is not enough either. Every one of your competitors is already doing that or will be soon.
You need to convey a brand story that highlights the experience only your institution can offer, a story that resonates emotionally and helps these prospects connect more deeply with your institution.
Deliver what mature students want by developing a sub-brand
The route you take to connect with this audience depends on your end game. Do you want to make (or keep) nontraditional students a key piece of your enrollment strategy? Or are you just testing the waters with older students and pulling back quickly if institutional consensus wears thin or short-term results aren’t as expected?
If you’re committed to succeeding with adult students and investing in a long-term strategy (a must do for many schools), then developing a sub-brand is the way to go.
Sub-brand message themes for nontraditional prospects might include:
- Support: How does your school help nontraditional students balance family, work and school? Flexible schedules, empathetic faculty, academic support and personalized advising are all details important for this market. Wrap these into high-level, differentiating key messages that speak to adults.
- A better career: Even more than young people, mature adults investing in their education want to know what’s in it for them: Will this help me at work tomorrow? Will this help me land a promotion? Will this prepare me for the career shift I need? Make specific career outcomes for older adults part of your sub-brand messages.
- Networking: Will adult students meet people critical to advancing their careers? Faculty, alums, professionals in the workplace, peer students? What does your school do to connect adult students who may not have time to join student orgs or professional clubs or attend campus events?
While these themes are very relevant to nontraditional students, developing them into messages that differentiate you from your competitors is key. Any school with decent programs for nontraditional students will have relevant offerings as well. But you have to cast these fundamentals within your institutional story — within your current brand — for an authentic and relevant sub-brand to emerge.
Keep in mind that storytelling is just as important to mature adults as it is to teenagers. Adults want to know how other students like them have succeeded at your school. And successful storytelling personally engages with prospects, connecting beyond schedules, costs and program details.
Hone your unique sub-brand
Think about it: Why should a 35-year-old single mom with two children and two years of college from more than 10 years ago choose your school over another offering the same program? What is special about the experience you offer that is relevant to this prospect, authentic to your school and different from her other choices? How can the foundations of your current brand be reinforced, and at the same time, reinterpreted for this audience?
Working with solid research, strategic decision-making, and expert design and editorial support, you’ll need to answer key questions like these to develop your sub-brand
- Can your key messages stay the same, but the supporting points be different?
- Should some key messages be changed or re-prioritized when communicating with older students?
- Do you need to reconsider how the student journey is presented for your institution?
- Would a shift in photo style better connect with this audience?
- Do your go-to graphic devices relate effectively across a broader age spectrum?
- Does your tone still work when talking to prospects 20 years older?
In the end, you’ll have a strong and differentiated foundation for communicating with this market segment — a foundation that not only builds on your current institutional identity but also extends it to welcome a new and needed audience.
Read our white paper to test your sub-brand strategy.