Three strategies to grow adult learner enrollments

Expert Insight

Three strategies to grow adult learner enrollments

Since the height of the Great Recession, community colleges nationwide have experienced significant enrollment declines among students age 25 and older. This trend is partly cyclical—during every economic recovery, adult learners leave college to return to the workforce. However, during this particular recovery, growing competition from other sectors of higher education has exacerbated the decline.

Over the past decade, for-profit universities have lured adult learners with the convenience and flexibility of their online programs. Today, many four-year universities are also recruiting adult learners to compensate for demographic declines among 18- to 24-year-olds. In this increasingly crowded market, how can community colleges continue to compete for adult learners without generating unsustainable marketing expenses?

Employer partnerships an underleveraged asset

Nearly all adult learners are returning to college to start, advance, or change their careers. Although they value the convenience of for-profit universities and the reputation of four-year universities, career relevance ultimately dictates where they choose to enroll.

When demonstrating the career relevance of their programs, community colleges’ greatest assets are their employer partnerships. Colleges have maintained employer partnerships for decades to support local workforce development, and they’ll have opportunities to grow these partnerships as the economy improves

Turning employer partnerships into student recruitment channels

Community colleges have historically underleveraged employer partnerships for student recruitment. However, progressive institutions are reversing this pattern through three main approaches:

1. Remove barriers to enrollment: If colleges can reduce the financial and administrative burden of enrollment, they can entice more working adults to take classes—often under their employer’s sponsorship.


2. Align program options with career goals: Colleges can partner with employers to promote stackable certificates, credit for prior learning, and other programs designed to confer work-relevant skills without excess time commitment.

3. Facilitate the hiring process: By positioning their training programs as a step toward finding employment, colleges can demonstrate the value of retraining to job seekers who might otherwise question it.

Learn More About Increasing Adult Learner Enrollments

The tactics above are just a few examples of how colleges can partner with employers to increase enrollments. The Community College Executive Forum’s infographic, “Searching for Ways to Recruit Adult Learner Enrollment,” outlines additional strategies to recruit adult learners through employer partnerships.