It’s not you: Adult student populations are smaller than you think

Expert Insight

It’s not you: Adult student populations are smaller than you think

COE leaders face intense pressure to grow. EAB members have shared ambitious goals with us, such as increasing head count by 300% and doubling revenue in three years.

When faced with steep targets for enrollment and revenue growth, COE teams turn to a range of adult populations. Four core audiences often arise in conversations with institutional leaders: workers facing automation, military students, degree completers, and international students. Often, one or more of these audiences are seen as essential to reverse institutional enrollment declines.

But these populations are smaller and more complex than they appear.

To serve these students, COE teams need to recalibrate their expectations of the sizes of these audiences. A more nuanced understanding of these student segments can reframe discussions about recruiting these core populations of adult students—and ensure expectations meet reality.

Ambition leads to outsized expectations of four adult student audiences:

Recalibrate expectations of core adult student segment sizes

The adult market is more competitive and smaller than most realize. If asked to estimate the sizes of populations of the adult market, estimations do not accurately capture the proportion of students that COE units can feasibly reach. The actual audiences are much smaller due to the following factors:

1. Daunting obstacles to completion
Challenges to adult student completion discourage many prospective students—and quickly shrink market size. Students may be much further from their degree than anticipated or may have stopped out multiple times, making completion a significant challenge. To brave these completion challenges and enroll, they will require resources like dedicated advisors to keep them on track to graduate.

Determining the sizes of these markets cannot come from estimating the population alone. COE leaders need to critically consider the complex factors like regional market demand and local student audiences to appeal to these segments.

2. Underestimated competition
College and universities not only compete with local institutions, but also with for-profit providers, employers, and international institutions in the online market. Adult students regularly seek cheaper or more convenient options, which may lead students to choose any one of these other providers.

3. Legal and financial barriers facing students
Some students face complex barriers that interfere with their educational progress. International students encounter a plethora of legal challenges both from the United States and their home countries that can make pursuing online education from the U.S. impossible.

For example, students in China may not be permitted to access content on U.S. university websites. Additionally, it can be challenging for students in the military to navigate the complicated process of accessing their military education benefits.

Even given a smaller size, these populations are still worth pursuing and with expectations matched to reality COE leaders can now better align their growth strategies and goals to the available student populations.

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