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Finding and recruiting adult learners

March 2, 2022

Jordan Lindsey

Director of Admissions, Corban University

Amy West

Assistant Vice President of Marketing and Brand Strategy, Bowling Green State University

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of EAB.


Universities throughout the country are facing the same issue-a dramatic decline in the number of high school graduates projected in 2025. COVID-19 has created additional enrollment instability and undergraduate enrollment is being negatively impacted at many institutions while there is growth in online and graduate programs which is accelerating the 2025 forecast.

Enrollment leaders are focusing efforts on recruiting adult learners. For traditional, residential universities, such as Bowling Green State University, this is critical to offset the loss of 18-year-old students who will be entering college in 2025.

Recruiting adult learners is different from recruiting traditional students and admissions and marketing teams are shifting models to effectively market to post-traditional students. What are the primary differences between recruiting traditional and non-traditional students?

  • The lack of test-taker lists makes it difficult to build a prospect pool
  • Non-traditional students face more personal and professional obstacles to enrollment
  • Adult students generally take longer to commit
  • Messaging to this population is very different

Creating a marketing strategy optimized to recruit adult students can include some hurdles. Many marketing and admissions teams are stretched thin. There are often limited financial resources to devote to a wide-reaching digital campaign targeting adult students, and Universities can’t afford to scale back on traditional undergraduate recruiting efforts. So how do institutions use existing resources to effectively market to prospective adult students?


It is critical to understand today’s adult learner. Admissions and marketing professionals need to remember that adult learners are changing and have been changing. There are more options than ever before when considering graduate or degree completion programs.


It is important to develop messaging that addresses their needs, motivations and fears. Adult students are concerned with flexibility, customization and the support available. They are motivated by creating new and better opportunities for themselves and their families including higher pay, promotions, more options, flexibility and achieving a professional milestone.

As part of EAB’s research, respondents spent an average of 20 more seconds talking about their fears than their motivations-a testament to how important it is to address these concerns in messaging which include: Will I have enough time? Can I afford a degree? Am I capable of doing this?

Leverage current trends when considering solutions for increasing your adult learner enrollment. During the past two years, more professionals are changing jobs or experiencing layoffs, and we are firmly in the “Great Resignation” era. Align messaging to reach these prospects.

Diversify sources

Institutions must diversify sources and have more than one funnel of students. Growing the list of prospects by diversifying the source of students to include test takers, institution inquiry pool, stop outs, young alumni, undergraduate students and first-party digital targeting.

  • Create a comprehensive and funded strategic adult learner marketing plan
  • Prioritize the top three to five programs with growth opportunities and focus on marketing to those prospects rather than trying to increase overall graduate numbers
  • Leverage data to gain a deep understanding of your students and build personas-look at who the right fit is for your programs and focus efforts on recruiting those students
  • Launch a paid search campaign
  • Launch a digital campaign including social media, online display and ads on college search sites
  • Focus efforts on Search Engine Optimization as more than half of adult students research programs using a search engine
  • Optimize web pages by including content that inspires prospects to act, is easy to navigate and contains the information prospects are looking for-cost, deadlines and time commitment
  • Make sure RFI’s are visible and train staff to effectively manage prospects and streamline the import process.
  • Work with vendors that understand the institution

Interested in the Rising Higher Education Leaders Fellowship?

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Finally, don’t lose sight of what’s working. More enrollment and marketing offices are feeling the pressure to convert and that can sometimes mean institutions go “all in” towards new initiatives. However, there are likely existing tactics that are working well at your institution. All of these solutions-old and new-work together to find the “right fit” student for the institution and provide the best chance to stay relevant and heard in a crowded adult learner market.


There is a lot of work to be done at BGSU and Corban University as we work to grow our adult learner population, but we have a solid strategy to build from. EAB has provided many resources as we worked to develop a marketing plan for adult learners including:

See the fellows’ blogs from the capstone projects

Jordan Lindsey, Amy West, and others participated in EAB’s Rising Higher Education Leaders Fellowship in fall 2021

Read more

Explore EAB research

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