Skip navigation
EAB Logo Navigate to the EAB Homepage Navigate to EAB home

Accelerate the adult degree completer’s journey to enrollment

September 18, 2020

For many enrollment leaders, recruiting adult degree completers has been a difficult nut to crack. For starters, as I wrote in an earlier post, a lack of test taker lists makes it difficult to identify students with some college credit interested in completing their degree. Degree completers also face more significant obstacles to reenrollment, ranging from competing personal and professional obligations to the reasons that led them to stop out in the first place.

To make matters more complicated, their journey to enrollment is often long and meandering—with some interested students just never taking the plunge. This was confirmed by our recent survey of 1,000 prospective adult degree completers, only 9% of whom had applied to a program despite strong interest in going back to school.

So what else did the survey tell us about adult degree completers’ slow journey back to school? And what can enrollment leaders do to support students as they explore program options? Here’s what we learned.

Survey Methodology

EAB and The Center for Generational Kinetics (CGK) conducted video interviews with 30 US adults with some college credit who indicated they were open to continuing their post-secondary education at a four-year institution. To supplement and quantify the insights from these interviews, EAB and CGK then surveyed 1,010 US adults.

More than other adult learner populations, the prospective degree completers we interviewed and surveyed spend significant time—often between one and three years—passively researching programs. And for many students, this research is more akin to window shopping. Prospective degree completers said they research programs sporadically and often without recording the information they come across. This intermittent research means enrollment leaders have a small window of opportunity to capture degree completers’ attention and make an impression.

Recommendation: To generate the greatest impact from your marketing, include student stories in nurture emails and other outreach. Our Adult Learner Recruitment analysts have found testimonials from fellow degree completers resonate with prospects and assuage concerns they may have about returning to school. Marketing messages should also emphasize program flexibility and convenience to further address prospects’ concerns about fitting a degree program into their busy schedules.

After lingering in a steady state of passive research, a major life event—such as children leaving home or job loss—often drives prospective degree completers to begin more actively exploring programs. While enrollment leaders can’t predict when these moments will strike, marketing and recruitment teams can be ready with the right messages in the right places to make an impression on prospective students at this critical juncture in their journey.

Prospective degree completers rely on search engines to learn more

Although family and friends often motivate prospective degree completers to go back to school, their influence takes a back seat when degree completers begin researching programs actively. Only 25% of survey respondents share they rely on friends and family to learn more about going back to school.


of survey respondents used search engines in the last year to learn more about reenrollment.
of survey respondents used search engines in the last year to learn more about reenrollment.

Instead, prospective students more commonly turn to search engines when gathering information about returning to school. Fifty-seven percent of survey respondents used search engines in the last year to learn more about reenrollment. Participants in our study report they most commonly search terms such as “online programs” or “colleges near me,” which speak to the value prospective degree completers place on flexibility and convenience in their college search.

To reach prospective degree completers researching via search engine, we’ve worked with Adult Learner Recruitment partners to develop a paid search strategy that delivers the right messages to students at this phase of their journey. For example, paid search ads should emphasize program flexibility and customization while also calling attention to support and guidance available to prospective students.

Recommendation: Ensure your website is search engine optimized so students encounter your program website when browsing via search engine.

Degree completers are overwhelmed by the amount of information available, but unable to find what they really need

As a researcher for our Professional and Adult Education Forum, I spent hours navigating college websites from the perspective of a prospective adult learner to help our partners identify strengths of and opportunities to improve their program websites.

Like many of the prospective degree completers we surveyed, I found the amount of information available on program webpages could be overwhelming, with the most important information sometimes buried elsewhere on the site. Other times, program websites lacked clear key information about cost, tuition and fees, or important deadlines all together. In either case, the inability to find program information quickly and easily can be dismaying—and lead prospects to navigate away from your site. Marketing teams should prioritize presenting program information clearly and in one easy-to-find location.

Recommendation: Include key program information prominently on your website so prospective degree completers can find the information they need efficiently. A program-specific FAQ page allows prospective students to find all the information they need in one place. FAQ pages should include information about program cost, expected time commitment, and important applications and admissions deadlines.

Although degree completers have been a difficult audience to recruit historically, the adult degree completers we surveyed were eager to hear from colleges and universities. And while enrollment in the wake of COVID-19 remains uncertain, growth in bachelor’s program enrollments among adults 25 and up following the 2008 recession suggest that they could be an even more important audience for enrollment leaders in our current economic downturn.

As economies and institutions around the world reel from the impact of COVID-19, enrollment leaders have sought to identify pockets of students they can recruit to offset grim projections for first-time, full-time undergraduate enrollment. Read this insight to learn about adult degree completers’ motivations, the obstacles they face in reenrollment, and their fears—and what they mean for your marketing and recruitment strategy.

More Blogs


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

When it comes to enrolling the "responsible" generation in continuing education programs, learn three higher ed marketing truths…
Adult Education Blog

How Houston Baptist University tripled graduate student enrollment

Despite facing enrollment challenges ranging from incomplete applications to a hurricane, Houston Baptist University has significantly grown their…
Adult Education Blog

The campaign strategy that helped one graduate program see a 4.6x increase in applicants

Learn how direct mail can help your recruitment marketing messages stand out to college students, increase the effectiveness…
Adult Education Blog

You may have noticed looks a little different. Explore what's new for partners.