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3 things you need to know about the shifting adult learner market

March 8, 2018

I’m at a local coffee shop across from five high school students—who, from my estimation and eavesdropping, are probably freshman. They are whispering anxiously about college applications (which they haven’t started yet), the cost of college, standardized test scores, and, most curious to me, their options beyond college.

Here’s what is striking about their conversation.

They are hyper future-focused and already seem to grasp that lifelong learning is the new normal. Even since I started writing this post, their conversation has veered to average salaries for specific careers and questions about required credentials. This might be the most responsible group of 15-year-olds in the country.

Understanding the responsible generation

Responsibility and pragmatism are hallmarks of both Generation Z and the youngest millennials, which represent a considerable segment of the growing adult learner market. Research shows that the days when 20-somethings mostly valued freedom and fun are gone, these students now place greater value on learning, responsibility, and purpose.

This shift is fascinating to me and not just as a parent myself: Any shift in audience values demands an associated (and well considered) shift in strategy by graduate enrollment teams. To succeed in the adult learner market, you have to have your finger on the pulse of audience trends, otherwise, you risk losing them to the competition.

Infographic: 75+ strategies to meet your adult student enrollment challenge

In working with more than 50 colleges, I am constantly learning about what works, what doesn’t, and why when it comes to engaging adult learners. Here are three of my truisms to understand, create, and capture graduate program demand.

1. Competition among adult learner programs is fierce, just ask Google

EAB projects a 21 percentage point increase in the number of students aged 25-34 by 2022, with more than twice as much growth in master’s degree enrollment than bachelor’s. The anticipated, rapid growth in adult learners has already contributed to market saturation in some degree programs, including graduate online MBA, MSA and MSW.

One recent analysis by the National Center for Education Statistics reports a 226% increase in cost-per-click for online graduate programs from 2009-2014. This means four times more people are searching for online graduate programs than they were less than a decade ago. In online search, when demand is high, cost is high. But with limited budgets, enrollment officers have to be ruthlessly cost-conscious, which puts a huge premium on market analytics, campaign metrics, and return on marketing spend.

In response to these trends, EAB developed our Adult Learner Recruitment initiative, which helps graduate enrollment officers efficiently target, reach, and enroll high affinity students.

2. Big data can help you find hidden affinity patterns

As most graduate enrollment officers know, the macro growth in the adult learner market doesn’t necessarily translate to enrollment growth on campus. Many of the colleges I talk to are paralyzed by choice: Which segments to pursue? Which geographies to target? Which campaigns to run? Which channels to optimize? The adult learner recruitment process can feel at times, like a game of “Where’s Waldo”. With millions of possible students—how do institutions know where to start?

Thankfully, big data—and data scientists—can help. By analyzing an institutions’ historical enrollment data against a massive consumer database using a proprietary model, we can isolate the variables that best characterize your high affinity prospects.

More simply, if in the past, you knew your most likely to enroll audience was 20-something females from a radius of 50 miles from campus, now we can tell you that those 20-something females are also extroverted, dog-loving moms who care about community activism and fitness. If before you knew that males with a STEM background often enrolled, now we can tell you that they are actually first-generation males with an interest in camping, family, and travel. Data science can reveal powerful, previously hidden patterns about your high affinity students that can make a measurable impact on conversion.

3. Translate prospect insights into actionable campaigns

The key to enrollment growth isn’t in the insights themselves, it’s in translating the insights into actionable marketing campaigns that help you stand out from your competition. What exactly does an enrollment team do, armed with knowledge about 20-year old, dog-loving extroverts? What type of campaigns should be run, at what time, on what channel, with what creative elements? These are hard questions with constantly evolving answers that our team studies around the clock.

Reaching today’s adult learner is challenging—but is also doable with data. The students I overhead at the coffee shop each had their own favorite classes, hobbies, consideration sets, and dreams. They will each carve their own, unique path to college, grad school, and beyond. Our job is to use evidence-based marketing to match the uniqueness of our clients’ graduate programs to the uniqueness of their target students.

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