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Demystifying Adult Student Recruiting

Becky Morehouse

Becky Morehouse

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There appears to be a lot of unnecessary mystery and trepidation around how to recruit adult students. In fact, with some strategic variations, the process to recruit adults is very similar to the process of recruiting traditional undergraduate students. Here’s a look at the four-step process:

  • Determine what kind(s) of students you want.
  • Find out where they live.
  • Build a brand around high-value programs.
  • Recruit.

Let’s unpack this.

What kind(s) of students do you want?

To gain insight into these students, develop three profiles of persisting students:

  • Demographic profile
  • Psychographic profile
  • College-choice profile

Because you are looking for students who will persist, and not merely enroll, you will turn to your own pool of persisting students to create these profiles.

The demographic profile examines identifiers, including age, gender, household and disposable income, employment status, and other “hard” data. These insights are obtained through institutional data mining.

The psychographic profile is a bit trickier to develop because it looks at values, attitudes, and lifestyle characteristics and explores such things as motivations for returning (going) to college, fears and reservations about returning to college, outcomes expectations, and other variables.

The college-choice profile includes variables like:

  • How students prioritize and weigh different college attributes in the choice process
  • Academic programs/majors of interest
  • Media (including social media) habits and channel preferences
  • Influencers
  • Inquiry source codes that identify where the student/lead originated

Defining an accurate—and institution-specific—psychographic profile and a full understanding of the college-choice process typically requires a survey of your persisting students.

Where do they live?

Determining where they live is a bit more complex for adult students than for traditional students because the “where” may be both geographic (states, zip codes, street addresses) and virtual (the websites they use to help them navigate the college-choice process). Of course, if many of your students are online, the “where” can become more distributed.

Fortunately, because you are building your recruiting model on students who will persist, you can use that same pool of existing students to gather these insights.

Of course, you might also be interested in attracting online or hybrid students. Again, your primary source of data for further understanding these students will be a survey of students who already succeed in those programs. Using basic market research methodologies, you can understand their motivations, the websites they peruse, and the college-choice variables they value most. You can also use this research to refine your search engine marketing (SEM)/search engine optimization (SEO)/Social Media Marketing (SMM) and pay-per-click (PPC) strategies.

Build a brand around high value programs

In most cases, we suggest building an institutional brand before building a brand around specific academic programs. However, because adults are so program-oriented, the third step focuses on building a brand around those academic programs that:

  • Are clearly in demand
  • Offer substantial quality
  • Are undersubscribed by prospective students (i.e., you have capacity)
  • Are high margin
  • Lead to high(er) paying jobs
  • Do not have a significant competitor

These criteria will help you evaluate existing programs and enable you to identify those programs with the highest viability. Building a reputation, through ongoing and consistent marketing efforts, around select high-value programs will positively impact your adult student recruiting efforts.


Too often, aggressive recruiting (which means heavy resource investment) is needed because the degree programs being offered are not competitive. They are too similar to programs offered by other schools, more expensive, or offer unclear job prospects.

Because the recruiting strategy will be built around high-value, high-demand programs, the actual recruiting efforts should be relatively straightforward. In many cases, your goal will be more about creating awareness of your programs than persuading prospective students to attend.

When it comes to recruitment tactics, we know that adult students respond to a multichannel communication channel that includes traditional, digital, and social media efforts. You’ve done the hard work already by identifying and understanding your prospective adult students’ needs, expectations, and media habits. (And don’t forget to recognize their fears and motivations outlined in our May blog.) It then becomes a matter of working a segmented plan that moves them from prospect to inquiry to applicant to enrolled student.

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