Why Aren’t Colleges Doing a Better Job of Recruiting Nontraditional Students?

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“Randy’s going to tell us all how to fix our problem with nontraditional students…” Thus began the introduction to my presentation, “Innovative Ways to Recruit Nontraditional Students” at a conference of community college enrollment marketers in Biloxi.

“No pressure!” I thought. Community colleges, like many four-year institutions, are facing shortfalls in enrollment this year, after seeing record numbers of students not so long ago. Unlike many of their four-year brethren, however, many community colleges are ideally suited to serve the one remaining bright spot in enrollment opportunity—the so-called nontraditional student. They can offer the affordability, convenience, and flexibility that four-years struggle to provide. Despite a slight turndown over the last year due to an improving economy, learners who aren’t 17–24, and who aren’t registered full-time, now make up roughly 70% of the enrolled population. Why aren’t community colleges (and four-years) doing a better job of recruiting them?

As I did my research to build the presentation, I visited the websites of numerous community colleges around the country. It didn’t take me long to figure out what the issues were. While I was looking at community colleges specifically, I believe the issues are common to all institutions that are attempting to serve nontraditional students.

Nontraditional students do not have four-year envy

Scrimmages. Leafy quads with logo-wearing 18-year-olds. Mascots. Marching bands. Great… if you’re selling the traditional four-year experience. Not so great if I’m a 50-year-old executive who just got laid off from my high tech job, or if I’m a single mom struggling to raise two kids. For traditional students, one of the overriding factors in the selection of one college over another is, will I fit in? For someone who’s thinking about going back to school, the question is the same. Based upon the websites of these community colleges, the answer is a resounding no!

One size does not fit all when it comes to nontraditional students

Nontraditional students come in all sorts of demographic flavors. Delayed starters. Certificate seekers. Career retoolers. Degree completers. Continuing ed returners. But when I chatted with my friends in Biloxi, most admitted that they communicated with their nontraditional prospects as a homogenous mass, clearly missing the opportunity to engage with their prospects on a much more targeted level.

Research indicates that, once a prospect visits your website, they’ll stay in the consideration phase for an average of two months, and for as many 18 months. Static websites and transaction-based emails do little, if anything, to move the prospect closer to commitment. Where’s the content that will keep them engaged and moving forward over months of deliberation?

So did I “fix” their problems? Probably not, but…

Here are some approaches that I’ve seen work with nontraditional populations:

  • Decide which segments of the nontraditional population offer the most potential for your college and laser focus on them.
  • Create a web experience and content assets targeted to address the wants, needs, desires, and fears of these specific populations. Do some interviews, dig beneath the surface, and create personas for each segment.
  • Use highly targeted digital outreach vs. mass media to build awareness and encourage inquiry. You’ll save money and get better results.
  • Nurture, nurture, nurture. These prospects may be in your pipeline for a long time. Use the opportunity to continue to build a relationship with them by keeping content fresh and relevant.
  • Measure and optimize. Digital approaches give us the opportunity to assess performance in real time, make adjustments, test, and maximize our effectiveness.

Interested in attracting more nontraditional students to your institution? Let’s chat more about how you can use strategic content to attract, engage, and enroll nontraditional students. Drop me a note at [email protected], follow me on Twitter @strategyfirst1, or call me in Albany at 518-591-4640.


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