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How to stand out in a crowded adult education market

Tactics to differentiate your programs and meet adult students’ needs

June 22, 2021 , By Will Lamb, Dean, Graduate and Adult Learner Recruitment

When I was a graduate school dean, one of the questions that kept me up at night was how to make my program stand out among other institutions. Now, after two years as dean of EAB’s Adult Learner Recruitment team, it doesn’t surprise me that this is still one of the biggest concerns that leaders of graduate, online, and adult degree completion programs face. The professional and adult education market has been and will continue to be very competitive.

Here are two strategies to help you differentiate your program.

  • 1 in 5

    online graduate students attend one of the seven biggest institutions

Design programs that highlight your strengths

When thinking about positioning graduate programs for growth, many enrollment leaders think they have two options: either create a new and innovative program that no one else is offering, or quickly build out a program that they know is in high demand. But often times, the solution is much simpler (and safer) than that.

Rather than developing a new program without validating market demand or focusing energy on programs primarily because they do well at other colleges and universities, I suggest leading with your own strengths and values. As a dean, it’s imperative to know why students are choosing your program over your competitors’ offerings. And once you can answer this question, it becomes possible to make this strength a differentiating factor for your program.

Potential strengths to zero in on

  • Technology and innovation

  • History and brand

  • Faculty

  • Mission and value

Other factors to take into account when considering program design include affordability, flexibility, and speed to completion. These aspects of the student experience have been shown to have the greatest impact in the market.

Think of prospective students as job recruiters

For another way to think about the dilemma students face when choosing programs and how this should influence your program design, use the metaphor of a hiring search for a new employee. In that scenario, your prospective students would be the “job recruiters,” and your program would be the candidate looking to fill the role. We want the job recruiters (or the prospective students) to take a look at our resume (or our program’s design elements), give that stamp of approval, and move our program onto the next round for consideration.

But once our program makes it past that initial screening, our program needs something that will wow in the interview and make sure we don’t just get the interview, but we get the job. Similarly, your program needs to stay competitive by meeting several basic qualifications, but also needs that wow factor to set it apart from the competition.

Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to program design. I often remind the graduate schools I work with through our Adult Learner Recruitment initiative that pinpointing the greatest opportunities for growth can only come from an understanding of external market demand, competitor analyses, and current internal capabilities and capacities.

Here are two examples of schools we have worked with to refresh their MBA programs, just to show you how different the growth opportunities can be based on each program’s specific strengths and drawbacks. Both MBA programs are offered at large public schools, but their opportunities for improvement are vastly different.


Growth opportunities vary significantly from school to school

Recommended MBA program changes at two schools
Institution Large, public school in the South Large, public school in the Midwest
Opportunity #1 Shorten time to completion Streamline admissions requirements
Opportunity #2 Better highlight competitive price point A bridge program to allow space for electives
Opportunity #3 Include testimonials on webpage including photos/videos Emphasize return on investment compared to competitors

Customize marketing messages to your best-fit prospects—and deploy campaigns at key moments in their journey

No matter how well-designed your programs are, you won’t achieve your growth goals if your right-fit prospective students aren’t learning about your programs. Not only are adult learners difficult to identify, but the paths they take to find your graduate, online, certificate, and undergraduate degree completion programs vary greatly. And because prospective adult learners have diverse motivations, goals, concerns, and timelines, recruiting this audience requires equally diverse messaging and marketing tactics.

Finding your best-fit prospects

To ensure you are reaching the widest audience of prospects, make sure you are tapping students from a variety of sources. Expand your prospect audience to include students known to your institution—such as your current undergrads, young alumni, and application starters—and students targeted from test-taker lists and first-party digital targeting.

Mass marketing strategies like billboards just don’t cut it anymore. Adult learners have been primed to expect personalized and responsive messages instantly, regardless of whether they’re shopping for a graduate program or new shoes. Standing out to adult learners in a sea of other ads is crucial; most prospective adult learners are stealth applicants who independently browse for options, who apply to two or fewer schools, and who find their program through indirect recruitment outreach.

Adult learner applicants

  • 70%

    are stealth applicants

  • 90%

    first learned about their program through sources other than direct recruitment outreach

  • 63%

    applied to two or fewer schools

Graduate programs must target their prospective students and keep them engaged just as much as targeted Facebook ads do. To do that effectively, enrollment leaders have to use students’ digital signals to understand prospects’ intentions and interests. Our team has found micro-surveys and quick polls to be especially effective in helping schools:

  1. Discover prospects’ programs of interest
  2. Learn why they want to enroll
  3. Uncover their concerns about pursuing further education

These signals can inform both the messaging and cadence of your marketing campaigns, ensuring your marketing cuts through the noise.

  • Awareness

    – Digital ads based on data-driven student profiles

    – Welcome emails and mailers to reinforce brand awareness

  • Consideration

    – Application checklists

    – Micro-surveys or quick polls

    – Triggered emails customized to student concerns

  • Decision

    – Timed emails with calls-to-action to encourage applications

    – Apply deadlines to create urgency


If I could go back and give myself advice when I was a graduate school dean, I would tell myself to invest time and resources into really getting to know my programs’ strengths and audiences. As you consider how to stand out among your competitors, keep in mind that it is easier to be great at something you are already good at than it is to be good at something you are only okay at. Leveraging your strengths can make all the difference as you work to stand out in a crowded market.

Will Lamb

Previously, Will served as Dean of Iona College’s LaPenta School of Business. In his time at Iona, the LaPenta School revised its BBA, MBA, MS in Accounting, and MS in Finance. They also substantially revised their graduate portfolio, developed an online MBA, and hired 11 new faculty. Prior to his time at Iona, Will was Murata Dean of the F. W. Olin Graduate School of Business at Babson College. In his time at Babson, the Graduate School launched Master’s Degrees in Finance and Business Analytics, and opened a satellite campus in Miami, Florida.

Previously, Will worked for Ohio University’s College of Business in a variety of roles including Associate Dean and Department Chair. He oversaw the launch of Ohio’s online MBA and helped launch their Walter Center for Strategic Leadership and Center for Entrepreneurship. Prior to his time at Ohio, Will was a faculty member at Millsaps College.

Will received his Ph.D. in Strategic Management from Virginia Tech. He received a M.Ed. in Instructional Technology and a B.A in Anthropology from the University of Virginia.

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