Debunking 10 Persistent Myths About the Adult Student Market

Bob Sevier

Bob Sevier

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The allure of the adult student marketplace, particularly online students, continues. However, in many cases, colleges and universities enter this market with a false or naïve set of expectations. Many suffer from a Field of Dreams “build it and they will come” mentality. This is often further complicated by unrealistic expectations around revenue generation.
We’re here to help debunk some persistent myths around the adult student market so you may compete in this market confidently and better serve adult students.

  1. Myth: There is plenty of room in the adult student market.
    • Reality: In fact, the adult market is overcrowded. There are too many colleges trying to serve a relatively flat, and even declining, number of adult students. This is especially true in the online space.
  2. Myth: The adult student market is high-margin.
    • Reality: Most adult programs have razor-thin margins and these margins continue to narrow. A glut of offerings has driven prices down even as the costs to offer adult programs increases.
  3. Myth: It is relatively easy to market to adult students.
    • Reality: Because there is no comprehensive “list” of prospective adult students, most colleges must create their own prospect pools using a wide-ranging marketing strategy that includes digital advertising, special events, re-targeting campaigns, and other forms of demand generation. This upfront and ongoing investment in marketing to adult students must not be overlooked.
  4. Myth: Adult students are attracted to high quality programs.
    • Reality: While quality is always valued, convenience and cost are often of equal or greater concern. This is especially true for adult students who are seeking a commodity buy rather than a brand buy. Solid rule of thumb: The best price for your programs will likely be at the top of the bottom third of all your competitors.
  5. Myth: Because we are a private, we can charge more for our online programs.
    • Reality:The idea that private colleges are often of higher quality than public colleges is largely untrue. Many two- and four-year publics offer an outstanding educational experience. Private institutions that insist on pricing their programs above those of their public school competitors because they believe their programs are of higher quality will meet significant marketplace resistance.
  6. Myth: We don’t need to worry so much about cost because we know that in an improved economy employers are reimbursing students.
    • RealityWhile the economy has improved over the past five years and companies are again offering tuition reimbursement, there are a couple of caveats. First, tuition reimbursement tends to focus on graduate degrees and less on degree completion. Second, tech companies are more likely to reimburse for tuition than service companies. Finally, tuition reimbursement tends to be a benefit for full-time rather than part-time employees. Your best bet is to do an analysis for your marketplace to determine what employers are reimbursing for what types of programs. Don’t assume. Check it out.
  7. Myth: Adult students persist.
    • Reality: Not only are adults less likely to persist than traditional-age students, those that do persist often do so on their own They are more likely to stop in and stop out as the vagaries of life intervene with college attendance.
  8. Myth: Adult students learn the same way as traditional-age students.
    • Reality: Adult students are more mature, they have more life experience, and they tend to be more practical with clear expectations on outcomes. The result is that they want an educational experience that is seasoned with real-life application. This means lectures and presentations, and discussions and assignments that they see are of clear value in helping them meet their goals.
  9. Myth: It’s all about the educational experience.
    • Reality: While the educational experience is pivotal, today’s adult students are increasingly interested in certain types of extra- and co-curricular offerings. They are involved in internships and co-ops. They are networking. They are meeting with career planners. They are seeking and creating opportunities to share both life and work experience.
  10. Myth: Recruiting adult students will save your college.
    • Reality: Some colleges and universities have enjoyed significant economic successes in the adult market. However, these colleges tend to fall into one of two categories. Either they were early entrants to this market, or they were willing to make a very significant investment to enter the market.

Summary statement:Colleges and universities that hope to do well in the adult market space must recognize a couple of realities.

  • The adult market is highly competitive and will demand a significant investment for entry. This investment will involve both hiring highly skilled marketers, and giving those marketers the dollars and resources they need to succeed.
  • Institutions must build their adult student initiative around a carefully designed set of high demand, high margin programs that lead to high(er) paying jobs.
  • Institutions must offer their programs at a price point lower than their competitors. In addition, they must be willing to offer gift aid to this student segment.


Question and comments

If you have any questions or comments about any of these myths, please let me know. Or, if you would like us to help you address any of the problems or opportunities mentioned in this article, it would be great to hear from you. Thank you!

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