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EAB recently collaborated with the Center for Generational Kinetics to interview and survey more than 1,000 prospective adult degree completers. The survey generated a wealth of information about their motivations, concerns, and common paths to reenrollment.
EAB’s Brittany Murchison and TJ Reid discuss what they learned from the survey about the best ways to motivate and encourage these students to return and complete their undergraduate degree. They touch on everything from search engine optimization to smarter ways of providing students with clear guidance on next steps and costs.
Brittany and TJ also highlight some of the administrative obstacles colleges need to eliminate in order to streamline credit transfers and make it easier than ever for adult students to transition back into academic life.
00:11 Meacie Fairfax: Welcome to Office Hours with EAB. I’m Meacie Fairfax and I’m excited about today’s episode because we take a deep dive into a new study that looks at the motivations and the hesitations that prevent adult students who stopped or dropped out of college from returning to complete their studies. My colleagues Brittany Murchison and TJ Reid examine what they learned from the survey and from the interviews with more than 1000 adult degree completers. They talk about common challenges they face and the way that universities can do a better job of finding, engaging and enrolling these students. They touch on everything from search engine optimization to smarter ways of providing students with clear guidance on those important next steps and costs. Brittany and TJ will also highlight some of the administrative obstacles colleges need to eliminate in order to streamline credit transfers and make it easier than ever for adult students to transition and feel welcomed back into academic life. Thank you for listening, and welcome to Office Hours with EAB.
01:22 TJ Reid: Welcome, everyone. Welcome to Office Hours with EAB. My name is TJ Reid, and I am joined today by my colleague, Brittany Murchison. Brittany, how are you doing?
01:31 Brittany Murchison: Hey, TJ. I’m doing great. I’m here as per the usual in my office, my home office in Richmond. I wish I was back in the office, but still at home. TJ, how are you?
01:43 TR: I’m doing well. I’m here in Virginia Beach. We just had the tropical storm move through. And you just never know, my four-year-old daughter may come in here and jump on my lap in the middle of the interview, like I’m sure everybody’s families do during Zoom meetings.
01:57 BM: Yes, you have your own little tropical storm at home, but everyone is safe, right, TJ, after the storm came through? I know Virginia Beach got hit pretty hard. Everyone’s okay?
02:05 TR: Yeah, as far as our family, absolutely. Doing very good.
02:11 BM: Good, good.
02:12 TR: So we’re here today to talk about adult learners and especially adult degree completers. I’m excited about this because this is a great group to begin to reach and to help. And I feel like for so many, it’s kind of like an audience that we don’t necessarily know that much about, or it’s complex, and so a lot of people kinda shy away from it. So I’d love to just start off the conversation with you, Brittany, by asking the question, how would you define a degree completer?
02:42 BM: Yes, it’s a great question, and it’s something that we struggle with at EAB. The division I work in is called Adult Learner Recruitment. We work with graduate students, professional students, and also this category that we would call degree completers, which often people just call “adult learners”. But what we mean when we say degree completer is an adult, so a non-traditional student, who has some college credit but has not completed their bachelor’s degree. So they have started it and for some reason have stopped, which again, makes them a very interesting audience to re-recruit.
03:21 TR: Yeah, so they’ve had some experience. Usually, in my experience, some of those folks, they may have failed out of classes before or had some sort of inciting life incident that caused them to drop it, and there’s usually some trepidation or nervousness as they’re coming back towards it.
03:38 BM: Yeah, that’s exactly right. As you know, TJ, I’m a marketer by trade, so I’ve done a fair amount of marketing throughout my career, and I think this audience in particular, it presents an interesting marketing challenge because you are trying to convince them to come back and to re-face something that they could see as a failure, even if it’s not truly a failure. A lot of folks drop out, as you said, for personal reasons, and those are good reasons, but they again, they have such great hope and excitement that they could come back and finish that degree, but also a lot of fear too. So it’s a little bit about as you’re marketing and messaging to them, striking that very delicate balance. You want to focus on that optimism while addressing that they’ve had some challenges and concerns in the past.
04:26 TR: Yeah, I led an admissions team, and one of the things that I would often tell our admissions counselors is, “We’ve gotta give this group of people courage and strategy. Courage to let them know, hey, you can do this and you can make this happen, but if it’s not married with strategy and helping them to know step A, B, C to get them to it, they’re gonna fall flat on their face, and so that marriage of courage and strategy.” I remember this one student that just came to mind this morning as I was thinking about it, his name was Terrance, and one of our admissions counselors said, “We’re gonna be Team Terrance, and I am already writing up the sign to hold up at your graduation because we believe so much that you’re gonna do this, Terrance.” And I just love that as a picture of helping to encourage this type of audience and student.
05:14 BM: I absolutely love that story. And it’s also a great reminder to all those recruiters out there who are working with these individuals, it’s such important work. But to pivot really quickly, EAB did a research study on this audience in particular, because a lot of our partners struggle to, one, identify them, to actually find them. Typically, in higher education marketing, we’re gifted because we have a lot of lists. People take admissions tests to get into school, and so you have lists of individuals. There’s not really a great list of these individuals out there, which makes them hard to find. They’re hard to reach once you find them, and then they’re also, as we’ve already talked about it a little bit, difficult to recruit with these challenges. But what your Team Terrance story reminded me of, this group that we worked with on doing this study, they came out with a quote that said, “This audience is receptive to information, interaction and guidance from just about anyone, anywhere, any time, in almost any form,” which just really hits home your point that they need the courage and they also need that road map and that strategy on how they’re going to complete the goal. It goes back to that fear again, because they didn’t accomplish it the first time, they really need to be convinced.
06:27 BM: I love that point on strategy about how they can get from point A to point B and really finish that degree. And I also love the sign and the visualization of the completion. That’s what’s really driving them forward too, so you have to have both of those components. Did you…
06:41 TR: Yeah, there’s a lot of these…
06:42 BM: Oh, sorry, go ahead.
06:43 TR: Go ahead.
06:44 BM: I was gonna say, do you wanna talk a little bit about the study really quickly?
06:46 TR: Yeah, I would love to talk about the study. I think there’s over three million of these students that have some college, no degree out there, so this is a really important group to target. Why don’t you share a little bit about the study we did at EAB?
06:58 BM: Yeah, absolutely. And you’re right, there’s over 3 million, and a lot of these folks really want to go back and get their degree, so it’s a great market to be targeting. So the reason we embarked upon this study is exactly for some of the reasons we already talked about. This audience is hard to find, so we wanted to survey them and get a really good sense of how we should be recruiting them. So we worked with, as I mentioned, an external company, it’s called CGK, The Center for Generational Kinetics, and they are fantastic and just have a really great way of finding these individuals. And it was a two-part study, so we did a qualitative part where we did videos of these individuals. So interesting. Again, we’ve been talking a lot about motivations and fears. When you break down these videos, they’re actually talking, they start talking about motivation. Again, so excited to get that degree, what it means to them. And then they pivot into fears, but they typically will talk about their fears for about one-third longer than they talk about the motivation, so definitely very important to them. So we did the qualitative study, had great videos, and then entered into the quantitative study part.
08:10 BM: So did a… I think it was a 15-question survey to those individuals, had over 1,000 respondents and some really good information, which we can talk about today. But that study is available on EAB.com, and I believe we’re gonna link from it in the podcast resources as well.
08:27 TR: Yeah, it’s such an interesting study. Man, when you think about that they’re spending a third more time talking about fears more than the things that are motivating, that seems to be the problem as an adult. As you get older, you’re constantly trying to overcome those things that are telling you that you can’t do it.
08:44 BM: Well, and TJ, you know, everything gets harder. You have a four-year-old, I have two kids, work is very busy, so fitting that all into your life is also a challenge and something that our partners really need to communicate to those prospects that the way that the classes are set-up, the way that everything is designed is for the adults, and that’s really important too, when you’re trying to convince these folks that it can fit into their lifestyle. It’s something that came out in the survey. That’s one of their… Once they get past their actual concerns of their previous experience, they’re like, “How is this gonna fit into what I’m doing day-to-day? We’re all so busy.”
09:22 TR: Yeah, you’re helping them get out the calendar and saying, “Here’s what it looks like in these micro-chunks of what it’ll be in your life there.”
09:29 BM: Absolutely.
09:32 TR: So some of the motivation of these audiences are that they wanna have greater opportunities for themselves, for their families. I know we’ve read a lot of those types of things before, are there things that are shifting as a result of COVID-19 that we’re noticing in the motivations of this audience?
09:50 BM: That’s a great question. So I love… With COVID, I love to be data-driven with how we’re responding because there’s just so much changing every day. And again, the great news if you’re a marketer is that there’s a ton of data out there from a digital landscape perspective that can help us be really informed. And so what we have seen is an increase in searches for “completing my bachelor degree.” and that started around April. So we saw a bump from March to April. That has been consistent. I think what that tells me is people are thinking one of two things, “I have less job security, and again, that bachelor’s degree can help me get the job that I want.” And the second part is, again, going back to that lifestyle, they could potentially have more time. So worst case scenario is that they’ve been let go from their job and now they have more time to pursue their degree. Or if you’re like me, you just have… You’re not commuting all the time. There is some extra time in that day where folks can think, “Hey, I’m gonna put that extra time to good use in this very, very unique situation.”
11:00 TR: Yeah, I saw a post on LinkedIn yesterday where somebody just detailed all of the hours that they’ve saved from… And the fact that 99% of their projects were actually getting done now that they’re working from home, and they were able to keep up with some more of that. So I’m sure time is such a huge aspect.
11:17 BM: Yes, I think time is a huge aspect. What I encourage our partners to think about though, we are seeing an uptick, you really have to see that through to enrollment. Just because… And we’ve seen this with this population in particular. Just because there’s interest doesn’t mean that they always move all the way through to enrollment, just given that fear factor that we’ve talked about a lot already today. We have a former business school dean who works with me, and he keeps reminding me that every economic downturn is different, so you can’t assume just because the last downturn in 2008 we saw a lot of individuals go back to either complete their bachelor’s or get their graduate degree, you just can’t assume that’s going to be the same. This is a very, very different economic downturn than any of us have ever lived through before, but it’s certainly something that we are monitoring closely.
12:05 TR: Yeah, I think some of the fear when I talk to higher ed administrators is there doesn’t seem to be like a horizon point, like a place that we know where this is definitely gonna end, and so that’s leading to some trepidation for people as they’re walking through this. But you mentioned that there was a spike in some of the adult learner interest in completing my degree. And like you said, it’s just not enough to get the interest, you’ve gotta help them take those next steps and move through the process. So with a new generation of more savvy online consumers than even say the 2007-2008 recession, what are the things that a marketing team or an admissions team should be putting on their website for this degree completer audience?
12:49 BM: Oh my goodness, yes. It is so, so critically important. Again, this audience isn’t what I would call an immediate hand raiser, so they are not going to immediately… We don’t see them submit inquiry forms as often. They are going to need help down the line, but they’re gonna do a ton of research before they reach out to you. I always say to our partners, “If you wanna be on the list of two schools that an individual is going to apply to, you need to be in the list of 10 they considered before they let you know that they were going to apply,” and so it’s really, really competitive. I think there’s a couple of things, and TJ, I know you have thoughts here too, given your vast experience. I’ll give two quick nods and then I’m sure you’ll have more to add.
13:32 BM: First, I think timeline to completion and cost you have to be really clear about. So again, when we looked at the survey, yes, there were those kind of intrinsic fears that they had from previous experience, yes, they want it to fit into their lifestyle, but they’re also very worried about how they’re going to pay. And so I think that’s really, really critically important, just both timeline to completion and financially what they’re going to need to do to get through. The second piece I would add is just around the actual marketing. Are they feeling like these are students that are like them? So Southern New Hampshire had a great commercial that they aired around the holidays, and it was this woman, and she was walking into a very traditional looking college evening class, and she was a couple of minutes late so the professor kinda slammed the door in her face. And then of course she goes to Southern New Hampshire and she’s a couple of minutes late, and they are very gracious and open the door and she comes in and there’s other working moms that look like her.
14:38 BM: And so I think that message to me, and this came out in our survey as well, it’s critical that they are seeing others like them. And you can do that through student success stories, you can do that through video and imagery, but it’s really, really important that they can see themselves there and they know that your programs are designed for adults like them.
15:00 TR: Yeah, I like that picture of the Southern New Hampshire commercial ’cause I think something that often we kinda gets lost in some of this reaching out to adult degree completers is ensuring the professional development of faculty that are working with them.
15:14 BM: Oh, great point, TJ.
15:16 TR: And if they didn’t understand some of the complexities of their life and some of the ways we have to bend compared to how we would with a typical 18-year-old, it’s a lot harder for them to get their minds wrapped around that and understand, “Here’s what we should maybe do a little bit differently for these adult students.” And… Go ahead.
15:36 BM: Sorry, I was just gonna jump in ’cause it’s such a great point, but even just thinking through how they’re admitted to what the application process looks like, that’s also really important. You wanna break down those barriers that are just gonna make it difficult for a busy adult to actually submit an application. So you’re right. Of course, it has to carry through to the classroom experience, but walk it back. You have to have a great website, you have to have a great way that they can apply easily, and the admissions process is clear and transparent. So all of those points along the way, those communication points, are so important to make sure that adults feel like they completely understand. Again, if you had failed at something before, having to even re-apply is such a big step. So we really encourage our partners to think through the entire student recruitment process and make sure that it is adult-friendly.
16:29 TR: Yeah, it’s like when you get to the bottom of a bonfire and there’s just a little bit of an ember left there and you’ve gotta try to… I remember so many times growing up as a kid, my dad putting a little bit of newspaper on the bottom and trying to reignite that fire in the morning for breakfast and stuff like that. That’s kind of our job in higher ed, is taking the little embers that are left and helping to turn it back into a bonfire that’ll help to power the next step of their life and what they’re doing.
16:56 BM: Absolutely. I mean, going back to this survey, we watched obviously all of the videos that we’ve gotten in the qualitative portion of that survey, and the videos from these individuals are so moving. I love… Again, great analogy, TJ, but I just, I love to think of it that way. I mean, these folks are talking so passionately about just being able to say that they have a bachelor’s degree and put that on their resume, how much that means to them. And again, going back, I loved your frame around encourage and strategy. That is what is going to give them the courage, the promise of that degree and what it could do for their family, so you really have to make sure that you’re focusing there as you’re talking to these students to get them through what is going to be a little bit of a challenging journey. Fitting those classes into your day-to-day, finding the way that you’re gonna pay for it. So all those things are challenging but you have to focus on that greater mission and the value of that degree, which again, to these folks means something very different.
18:00 BM: We see some of our graduate students are looking for ROI. So if I’m gonna pay this amount of money, how much will I make on the back end? And certainly, these folks are thinking of it that way, but it does really, truly mean something to them. We had one woman in the video and she talked about how she wanted to go back because her daughter was two years away from going to college, she wanted to show her daughter that she could do it too. These reasons are just, they’re a little bit… They’re a little bit different than what we typically see, at least in the adults based on the grad side.
18:32 TR: And that’s how we build more equity for future generations and opportunity to be able to see themselves in being a graduate from college, and that’s awesome.
18:43 BM: Yeah. I agree.
18:45 TR: I love one of the things you were saying before about the cost and the time to completion. I think when you’re talking about this population, having a place on your website that’s not complex as well as having a person that can help with transferability and is very open to adult degree completers, there’s no better time than now to eliminate some of those administrative obstacles that you’ve had before. And so I think if you really focus on helping a student to understand, “Here’s how your credits are gonna transfer. Here’s the amount of time it’s gonna take to get there and here’s how much it’s gonna cost,” if you can answer those questions, you’ve captured somebody rather well in this population. But I think so many of us in higher education really struggle to answer that without complexity or not giving them an official evaluation of their credits, and so we wanna be able to help them understand, “Here’s what it’s gonna take, and you can do it in this time.”
19:38 BM: And I have seen and heard partners doing really innovative things in working with community colleges. So again, thinking through, you’ve got your associate’s degree, how are you making those credits, how you’re developing partnerships where those credits can easily transfer to your institution for a four-year degree? Even if it’s just kind of a general ed degree, how are you making sure that those can move through? Again, to your point, TJ, you have to make this easy and clear. Imagine talking to a high school student about, hey, after they’re finished with their two-year degree at a local community college, they could easily transfer the credits in and get their bachelor’s degree. That’s creating a true pathway and allowing these students to have the on-ramps and off ramps along the way for when life gets in the way. That’s just going to be the way it is for a lot of these students, especially as you mentioned if they’re first generation. So it’s important to think about those pathways and to create them and really break down, as you said, those administrative barriers.
20:42 TR: Yeah, that’s really good. I love that.
20:45 BM: Yes, I think a lot of schools are really progressive the way they’re thinking about this audience because it aligns with mission, as we’ve already mentioned, this is why we all are passionate and love being in higher education, and also there’s a pretty big market out there. So I think it’s one that we have to think creatively about tapping into because there are challenges, but it’s an important one.
21:07 TR: Yeah. And what better time to lean into each other and to partner with other schools when we’re all looking for solutions, and at what times can feel like a wilderness in the midst of all of this.
21:17 BM: And we were talking a little bit about COVID, certainly the idea of online higher education was… We had that before we had COVID, but now it seems as if it’s no longer an option that people are debating, we just have to move forward with online. But again, in this degree completion space, that’s actually what they want. So in the survey, I think about 90% of people said that they wanted to take classes online. Again, it is different for this population than a traditional undergrad or a graduate student who might actually want that experience on campus with faculty and with other students. That’s just not the top priority for this group. The top priority is getting the degree as quickly and easily as possible, and so online has always been really, really important here.
22:04 TR: Yeah, I think one of the things it said was that these folks aren’t looking for an educational experience, they want a college degree. And, yeah, that’s really important. It really surprised me when looking at that survey that almost generationally it tracked as somebody got older from Millennial to Gen X and older, they were a lot more open to online. And maybe that just speaks to the complexity of life and needing to fit it in where you can.
22:34 BM: I think they’re a very practical group, which I think makes a lot of sense. But again, it goes to your point, if they’re looking for online classes, they’re probably looking online and on your website to evaluate what classes they need. So again, it just goes back to that importance of your website and having all that information available for these prospective students.
22:56 TR: So are there any other strategies that you’ve seen to successfully convince degree completers to move ahead for schools that you’ve worked with or schools that you’ve heard of?
23:05 BM: Yeah, I think it is… So again, marketer by trade, the way I would classify it is nurturing. So once they become interested, once they get on your radar, it’s one thing to say, “Hey, it’s time to apply.” That’s certainly one tactic. Another is to reach out to them, “What are your motivations? What are your concerns?” Thinking through what do they actually need to learn about your process to make that decision. I don’t wanna call it hand-holding at all, but they do need additional help and resources to help them navigate the process. So that’s certainly one thing that we encourage our partners to think about is how is your recruitment team staffed and do they know how to answer these questions? Are they willing to kind of have those more candid conversations about motivations and concerns? Those touch points are going to be important to them. It will be how they evaluate whether you can support them once they’re in the program, how the recruiters are supporting them through that process. So we think a lot about nurturing, a lot about making sure that they have the information that they need to help them through the process.
24:23 TR: It sounds like just a move from almost like a megaphone to like a conversation, like from talking over a microphone, “Here’s what we want you to know,” to what do you need to know and making that a conversation for them. And, yeah, I think adult degree completers especially, they’re hesitant if they talk to an admissions person and they’re not willing to tell them straight up how much it’s gonna cost or if they shirk away from that. And so I think to your point, it’s really important that we train anybody that’s speaking to this population to be as transparent as possible with the folks that are interested.
25:01 BM: Yeah, I think the thing too is, again, this came out in the survey, they want it to feel customized, which is interesting because I think what that really means to me, I’m reading in between the lines a little bit, is that every situation is uniquely different. Everyone has had a previous experience with education that is different, everyone’s current situation is different, and so I think they want that to be acknowledged in the process. And so just even encouraging recruiters to ask those kind of questions, “How many kids do you have at home? What are your hours like at work? What is a convenient time for you to take this course?” And so I think really making it feel customized for them is wonderful, and then also making sure… You can’t not have the megaphone. I like your analogy again there, TJ. You can’t… You still need the megaphone, but how do you actually make sure it also feels customized for them?
25:57 TR: Okay, so Brittany, you just mentioned something about the still the need for the megaphone. Can you talk a little bit more about that and how universities can do that?
26:07 BM: Yes. Again, these recruiters are doing such valuable and important work, but if they just had to pick up the phone and call each individual student, you would probably not be hitting the enrollment goals that you wanna hit, so you do still need that megaphone. One way I think… Again, not to bring it back to the website again, your website is gonna be a really important megaphone for you. But think about how people are getting to your website. So we work with a lot of our partners making sure that you’re kind of SEO optimized, so when people are searching for you, that your programs are coming up, and that they’re coming up in a very adult-friendly way, so really thinking through what those key search terms are and making sure that they are on your website and optimized for Google to find you.
26:51 BM: The second way we do that is working with partners on paid search, so that’s when you use certain search terms and you will bid on them, and Google will serve ads that almost look like an organic search term coming back up, but it’s actually we’ll pay for that ad space. And so that’s how we find that, one, a lot of adult learners are getting to your website is actually through search in general, so making sure that you’re optimized and making sure you’re bidding on those key terms, and then what we find is that if an adult is searching on Google, they’re probably closer to actually applying and enrolling than some who are not, and so it’s also a really important audience to capture at that kind of bottom of the funnel, if you will. They’re a little bit closer to making a decision, so we move them quickly into that nurture stream we were talking about. So it’s just a nice complement, as you said, to have the megaphone and then have the one-on-one personalized approach. You really need both with this particular audience, because as we’ve talked about, there’s just different in kind challenges that they’re facing.
28:01 TR: Hey, you need to reach them… What is it? Seven impressions typically for somebody to really get a good feel.
28:08 BM: I mean, it’s seven impressions. So an impression, again, is just someone seeing your brand. In this case, I would say seeing the fact that you have classes and opportunities for those degree completers. It’s seven to ten just for them to remember that you have that. So it’s quite a bit. There’s a lot of noise out there. This is a very competitive market. As you mentioned, there’s a big population of students and a lot of schools are trying to figure out how they can get a piece of that pie, not only for enrollment growth, but as we mentioned, it’s truly part of higher education’s mission to make sure that these folks have those opportunities.
28:47 TR: Yeah. And we’re operating in a place where schools have to overcome some of the skepticism of higher ed and the past failures and stuff like that, but the fact is, is there’s still Bureau of Labor statistics of people that go from some college, no degree to actually getting a bachelor’s degree, they earn on a median $400 more a week. And there’s new industries and new shifts that are happening that are gonna need people to be retrained and re-skilled and higher education could absolutely step into that. Would you just kinda close us out in this time, Brittany, just talking about some of the mission of what we have to do here with these adult degree completers?
29:27 BM: Yeah. I mean, we’re talking to partners all the time who are trying to think really innovatively and differently, exactly to your point, how do we create educational opportunities that are going to help advance the workforce, that are going to help folks get opportunities that they wouldn’t have received before? And again, I think doing that at a local level is really important. We’ve mentioned those community college partnerships that you can think through. Also just working with local industry, what do you need, and then investing in those programs and allowing folks to have opportunities, again, that they wouldn’t have had before, which is just so critically important. And I’ll just end, again, TJ, I’ve said it a bunch this podcast, but I just really have such admiration for the recruiters who are one-on-one with Terrance talking about how he’s going to meet his goals and objectives, is just really important work that they are doing. And what I love at EAB is we get the opportunity to help with that megaphone and just hopefully increase the number of people that they are getting the opportunity to pick up the phone and hopefully change someone’s life.
30:36 TR: That’s a good place to end. Let’s end right there, Brittany. Thank you so much. This has been a really good conversation with you today.
30:43 BM: Yeah, TJ, it’s been really fun. And I know you share my… We share a similar passion with this particular audience, so I appreciate the conversation and also you sharing all your previous experience, which is so important.
30:57 TR: Absolutely. Well, thank you. This has been TJ Reid and Brittany Murchison here at Office Hours with EAB. Thank you for joining us today.
31:05 BM: Yes, thank you.
31:12 MF: Thanks again for listening. Join us next week when EAB’s Jeff Martin is joined by Ryan Catherwood, an alumni engagement professional from Longwood University. Ryan and Jeff will explore ways the pandemic has impacted university fundraising efforts and even challenged some long-held assumptions about the most effective ways to accomplish that mission. For Office Hours with EAB, I’m Meacie Fairfax.
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