To increase adult learner enrollments, be sure to solve the right problems

Sue Dietrich

January 20, 2016

Adult learner recruitmentI’m a firm believer in the adage, “If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.” As we create strategies for adult program growth, knowing what works and what needs to be fixed is critical. For example, if working adults can’t get the major they want entirely in the evening or online, launching an advertising campaign to generate inquiries may be a waste of resources. However, if you offer an adult-friendly program that no one knows about, you may benefit from an advertising campaign. Let’s look at some ways to identify what may help you create effective strategies for adult learner enrollments. Please also see our 2015 Adult Student Marketing and Recruitment Practices Benchmark Report for related data and findings.

10-point checklist to focus on the right problems with adult learner enrollments

1. Begin by analyzing your student demographics for the past five years. Include the origin of your transfer students. What is your “over 21” population? What are their majors? Full or part time? Day or evening? On ground or online? How many credit hours do they generate? Use this data to establish realistic enrollment goals for the adult learner.

2. Conduct a thorough analysis of your competitors in the adult program space. This would include length of time to complete, tuition, academic requirements, and program formats. Based upon a recent benchmarking study, the most popular course formats for adult programs were evening and online classes. Can an adult earn an entire degree via evening or weekend classes at your institution?

3. Identify program areas of interest to adults, and conduct a needs analysis of employers to determine appropriate adult programs to develop. Consider conducting primary survey research to gauge enrollment potential. Business, health care/nursing, education, and computer science are consistently well-enrolled by adults. Do you offer the right programs?

4. Use adult learner buying behaviors to form your communication strategy. Adult learners typically select a college based upon program of interest, convenience, and recommendations of others. These students generally prefer to enroll quickly once a decision is made, but may stealth shop and delay making a decision.  Once they inquire, the speed of follow up  matters with adults. Close to half of the colleges who call adult inquiries do so within a day. Overall, phone attempts by staff were used by 95 percent of adult programs studied. Nearly 91 percent found this to be very or somewhat effective. In another survey of undergraduate online students who contacted more than one college, 69 percent indicated that they enrolled in the institution that responded to them first. Is your institution first to respond?

5. Develop multi-channel marketing approaches. Adults need to hear your message when they are ready, when a life change or job opportunity presents itself. Television, radio, and direct mail help drive them to your website. Make sure there is a homepage tab specifically for the adult learner with images and content relevant to the older student. Ensure a “request for information” form is readily accessible from every page.

6. Once the inquiry is received, invite them to a face-to-face information session. For adult learner recruitment, face-to-face information sessions are rated the most effective practice by public and private, four-year and graduate institutions. Consider holding information sessions off-site, close to your inquiry base. If you choose the open house route, be sure it’s in the evening or on the weekend. What methods work best for your circumstances and what is your strongest competition doing?

7. Create a trained enrollment team to serve this group. Responsiveness and relationships are important to adults. A trained enrollment advisor knows how to overcome each adult’s fears and barriers. This can only be accomplished through dialogue and discussion – not mass emails and pretty websites. Are your enrollment advisors mature themselves, and can they relate to adult learners?

8. Centralize ownership of the inquiry. Having one enrollment advisor or one team to consistently see the inquiry through file completion, admission, academic advising, financial aid, and enrollment enables you to maintain consistency and accountability for enrollment by program and by enrollment advisor.

9. Measure conversion rates by inquiry type and set performance goals. Median conversion of adult program inquiry to application was 29 percent for private four-year and graduate institutions compared to 40 percent for publics. Admission rates average 81 percent for privates compared to 81 percent for publics. The average overall inquiry-to-enrollment rate for nontraditional students is 15-20 percent. What are your conversion rates for this student?

10. Ensure you have the proper staffing. How many inquiries can your enrollment team handle? The median for privates is 286 inquiries annually per enrollment counselor, compared to 302 for public four-year institutions and 800 for the community college. An increase in inquiries without adequate staff can result in flat or declining enrollment. How is your conversion rate impacted when your inquiries increase or decrease?

In closing, creating effective strategies to grow adult enrollments can be diverse and complex. With the adult learner, program availability, convenience, personal and rapid responsiveness from staff, reputation, and appropriate messaging can make the most of your inquiry base. Armed with facts and data, we can solve the right problems and develop the strongest strategies for growth.

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