Between 2025 and 2029, the college-age population in the United States is expected to decline by nearly 15% due to the sharp drop in fertility rates following the Great Recession, and then drop another percentage point or two in the subsequent years.
That translates to a loss of more than 400,000 students in a span of four years—or roughly 100,000 students per year.
The prediction comes from Nathan Grawe, an economist at Carleton College. “Students are going to be a hot commodity, a scarce resource,” says Grawe. For this reason, many institutions have turned toward recruiting adult learners to offset declines in their traditional student populations.
But… who exactly are adult learners?
Typically, adult learners are defined as students aged 25 and older. And they make up nearly half of all students currently enrolled in colleges and universities, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).
Adult learners are diverse because adults are diverse. They could be Baby Boomers or millennials, veterans, parents, career changers, and more. And they have varying levels of prior experience with college: they might have no experience with higher ed, have a few online or in-person classes under their belt, or hold multiple degrees.
Because adult learners encompass a wide range of students—including students enrolled in graduate, online, certificate, and undergraduate degree completion programs—they can be difficult to recruit.
Here’s a breakdown of the two largest groups of adult learners, as well as recruitment tactics for each:
Graduate and professional students
So to recruit graduate and professional students, your institution must “identify their motivations and methods for pursuing an advanced degree—insights needed to make the most of each contact with them,” writes Pam Kiecker Royall, Ph. D. in a blog post.
So it’s no surprise that for these students, the weight of external responsibilities can make college especially difficult to navigate. In fact, about 38% of students with outside financial, work, or family obligations leave within their first year, according to the Lumina Foundation. This reality makes financial support, flexible scheduling, and affordable, on-campus childcare particularly important options for degree completers.
Challenges to adult learner recruitment
Aside from the fact that adult learners each have unique motivations for continuing their education, there are still several other challenges enrollment leaders face when recruiting adult learners, one of which is the changing market landscape.
While early projections had once suggested considerable graduate enrollment growth through 2029, year after year, NCES revises its predictions lower and lower.
In fact, there will likely be 400,000 fewer master’s students by 2029 than originally anticipated by NCES in 2013. That’s about $7.2 billion in estimated master’s degree tuition revenue that’s no longer expected, according to EAB Managing Director of Research Megan Adams.
At the same time, competition for a smaller number of students is expected to grow. EAB researchers analyzed a representative sample of college and university strategic plans and found that 75% list graduate education or adult enrollment as a top priority.
With these trends in mind, here’s a breakdown of the four distinct challenges enrollment leaders face when recruiting adult learners:
Though graduate and adult learner enrollment growth is expected to slow in the coming years, trends in recent master’s degree conferrals suggest that certain programs and fields—like computer science, engineering and the health professions—will actually continue to grow, writes Adams in a recent blog post. Still, these programs are often the most expensive to deliver, she adds.
But “with the right investments in the right programs, it is still possible to grow master’s degree enrollments,” notes Adams.
Therefore, one of the primary challenges to adult learner recruitment is prioritizing which programs to expand and refresh—and which to cut. As one provost at a regional public university explains, “Our challenge is simple to say and hard to do: What should we keep, what should we cut, and what should we move online?”
At many institutions, the colleges are responsible for all aspects of adult learner program development and implementation. This often means that adult learner recruitment isn’t centralized. And with so many messages coming from so many corners of campus, how can you ensure everyone is reading from the same playbook?
This problem is compounded by the fact that many institutions don’t dedicate much of their marketing budget to the complex process of recruiting adult learners. In fact, the majority of institutions spend 20% or less of their marketing budget recruiting adults, according to a 2019 EAB survey of college deans. More specifically, 48% of institutions spend just 10% to 20% of their marketing budget recruiting adults, while 38% of institutions spend less than 10% of their marketing budget recruiting adults.
of institutions spend just 10% to 20% of their marketing budget recruiting adults
of institutions spend less than 10% of their marketing budget recruiting adults
Instead, recruiting adult learners requires coordination (and added budget) from senior leadership. For instance, as one dean at a large public university told EAB, “We don’t have the budget to spend what we need on adult recruitment. Even worse, we deans all worry that we are wasting money recruiting over one another for the same students.”
Despite projected enrollment declines, the adult learner market is still relatively large. The challenge? Adult learners are a diffuse audience.
When recruiting high school seniors, we know who they are, where they are, and whether they intend to go to college. But identifying adult learners—including adults with no college credit, some credit or an associate degree, or a bachelor’s degree but no graduate degree—requires sophisticated consumer analytics and targeting.
Adult learners each have their own unique journey to enrollment. So one of the top challenges in adult learner recruitment—after identifying prospective adult learners—is marketing to students with the messages that address their unique concerns and responding to their micro-behaviors at the right moment.
It’s not just about who and where, but also when and why
“Things are good right now”
“I need more school to advance”
“I just can’t afford it”
“I need to invest in my future”
“Maybe when the kids are older”
“I need to set an example”
Therefore, to sustain and grow adult learner enrollment, colleges and universities must recruit smarter. “To recruit adult learners, schools need to be hyperresponsive to engagement cues and signals, which requires advanced analytics and the ability to personalize communication at scale,” according to EAB research.
Learn how EAB’s Adult Learner Recruitment can help you address these challenges by identifying right-fit students for specific programs and developing the most effective marketing strategies to ultimately grow your revenue and graduate enrollment.
More on adult learner recruitment
Our Adult Learner Recruitment Case Study Compendium showcases the stories of six diverse programs and the transformative results they've seen since partnering with us:
Distinct from first-time students, continuing education units need to develop outcomes-focused recruitment messages for adult learner recruitment.
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