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Understanding What Motivates Adult Students

Becky Morehouse

Becky Morehouse

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In a previous blog I outlined the qualities adult students look for in a college or university. This time, I’d like to address the two primary motivations for adults who decide to go to or return to college. These categories are not exclusive. There is considerable overlap.

We will call the first group of adult students the Practicals.

Practicals are driven by the financial betterment of themselves and their families. While all adult students value learning, the Practicals especially value learning that will impact their ability to either obtain or retain employment. That’s why the majors of most interest to adults tend to be career focused (i.e., business, nursing).

In this regard, adults are interested in how their program will enhance income potential, promotions, job security, and other career-related opportunities.

Marketing Takeaway

When communicating to practicals, keep in mind that they are driven by jobs and careers. Show how adults like them have in fact achieved those types of goals. Cite placement, promotion, and salary data and organize it by program. Practicals value the concept of—but tire of the wording—“real-world experience.”

The second group of adult students are the Dreamers. This group comprises two sub-groups: Starters and Finishers.

Starters have long desired to go to college, but life (work, family, other responsibilities, and finances) have prevented them from attending. For Starters, college is a new experience. While their motivations may be practical, they are almost never solely practical. Dreamers, like all adult students, are interested in majors that lead to specific careers, but at least a portion of dreamers are less career-focused.

Marketing Takeaway

Starters will require a bit more handholding. They will have higher levels of uncertainty, even fear. Often they will not know what questions to ask so be forward leaning in your communication. Walk them carefully through every process and step. As with other adult students, show Dreamers how adults with similar backgrounds have been successful at your institution and beyond.

Finishers are people who attended, but did not complete college. For many, their life circumstance has changed and college is again an option. Finishers may have decidedly practical motivations, but underlying those motivations is a desire to finish something they started. They want to close the loop.

Marketing Takeaway

In most cases Finishers already understand the value of college so your messaging needs to focus instead on completion. Show the resources you have to help Finishers complete their programs and move forward.

In the final analysis, successful marketing will depend on your ability to first understand the motivations of your adult students, and then on your ability to effectively customize the messaging.


Interested in discussing how to effectively attract adult students? Let’s connect. Send me a message at [email protected] or leave a comment below..

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