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Adult learners and strategies for success

March 2, 2022

Christopher Cuccia, Ed.D.

Associate Provost for Academic and Graduate Affairs, Seton Hall University

Melissa McCauley

Director of Marketing, Wilfrid Laurier University

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

With a growing demand for education solutions for ‘adult learners’ and professionals looking to expand their education beyond the traditional PSE journey, our capstone project focused on identifying best practices and strategies for successful recruitment and retention of such adult learners.

The potential to grow in new adult education opportunity areas is partly driven by the recent slowing of the traditional graduate studies market. It is also fueled by the increasing demand for non-traditional learning. The economy has shifted, and the job landscape has evolved, with emerging skill requirements in new areas including digital transformation, AI, data science, etc. In order to keep pace, both learners and employers are looking for new, faster, easier approaches to develop skills via upskilling or reskilling. Individuals’ goals may vary significantly – whether looking to master a new skill, advance in career progress, or even make a career shift to a new area or industry.

Many universities are not well positioned to successfully attract and retain adult learners in non-traditional ways. The traditional post-secondary approach has been internally-focused (focused on delivering programs that meet an institutions’ capabilities) as opposed to learner-focused (meeting the adult learner where they are at, to target and meet their specific needs). In part, this is due to the hyper-focus on undergraduate education at many institutions, brought about by both enrollment and fiscal pressures. This results in a lesser understanding of the unique needs of adult learners, many of whom face barriers to entry and/or completion as a result of financial, academic, or scheduling issues.

By shifting to a learner-focused approach, institutions can tailor solutions and marketing to more successfully attract, recruit, and retain new learners. To do this, though, institutions must develop a deeper understanding of adult learner audience segments. This may involve centralizing resources to build expertise and adopt a holistic, strategic business approach. It also requires designing solutions to meet unique needs. This may include:

  • Aligning program offerings with career goals; offering timely, ‘stackable’ learning solutions with a range of immediate and deeper skill building
  • The removal of barriers with support and services
  • Strategic marketing to meet audience needs
  • The promotion of learner benefits and outcomes

In order to leverage these opportunities at our universities, the first step is to dedicate resources to focus on this group of students, develop a thorough understanding of their needs, and tailor our approach meet their needs and goals.

A work plan would include a strategic approach to:

  • Audit and evaluate current adult-learner resources, program and service offerings, and marketing efforts
  • Compare current approach with best practices, and identify any gaps and areas of opportunity
  • Develop an institutional understanding of current and potential adult learner audience segments
  • Build recommendations to meet unmet audience needs, and create the business case to pursue opportunity areas

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See the fellows’ blogs from the capstone projects

Christopher Cuccia, Ed.D., Melissa McCauley, and others participated in EAB’s Rising Higher Education Leaders Fellowship in fall 2021

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