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Survey Highlights What Matters Most to Adult Learners

Episode 170

October 24, 2023 30 minutes


EAB’s Beth Donaldson is joined by her colleague, Todd Heilman, to review findings from a new EAB survey of nearly 4,000 adult learners. The two review what we learned about the motivations and preferences of adult learners, and about how they research programs and colleges they might attend. The survey findings offer a wealth of information for universities on how to find, engage, and enroll these students. Todd and Beth urge university leaders to make their school website more helpful to adult learners.

They also advise leaders to ensure they offer adult students maximum flexibility in course modalities and to highlight scholarship and financial aid opportunities that will make returning to college more affordable.



0:00:11.3 Speaker 1: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. Our guests today share findings from a new survey of nearly 4,000 current and prospective adult learners to understand what makes them tick. Our experts share what motivates these adult learners, what kinds of programs and program modalities they prefer, and what universities might do differently to identify, engage, and enroll this critical audience, which is responsible for nearly half of all higher ed revenues. So give these folks a listen and enjoy.


0:00:48.5 Beth Donaldson: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. My name is Beth Donaldson and I’m the Managing Director of our Adult Learner Consulting Services here at EAB. One particular area of focus for me and my work has been around how institutions engage and enroll adult learners. Just to provide you with some context, adult learners now make up 42% of total higher education revenue. So if you think that they don’t matter much to your particular institution, I would implore you to think again. As the college-going rate of recent high school graduates really continues to fall and decline, attracting and enrolling adult learner students is more important now than ever. Today we’re going to take a deep dive into a recent survey we conducted over the summer to learn more about the preferences and college research behaviors of current and prospective adult learners. With me today to dig into the survey findings is my colleague Todd Heilman. Todd, would you mind introducing yourself and telling us a little bit more about your role here at EAB?

0:02:00.6 Todd Heilman: Sure, thank you Beth. Hello everyone. As Beth said, my name is Todd Heilman and I have the pleasure of serving as Senior Consultant and Principal in EAB’s Adult Learner Division. I’ve been with the firm for about a year now and prior to joining EAB, I was a practitioner on campus with over two decades of experience in enrollment management, marketing, and student success positions. In my current role, I support our strategic leaders and our partners in order to help them achieve their enrollment and campus goals by providing strategic guidance and support.

0:02:33.7 BD: Great. So Todd, tell us a little bit more about the survey. What was the demographic breakdown among the participants and what kind of information were we looking to gather?

0:02:46.2 TH: Great. Well, we’re really excited to present our latest survey findings with you today. At our core, we are a research firm and this survey represents our research team’s latest findings for graduate and adult learners. This is a biannual survey that the team prepares for current and prospective graduate, online, and adult learners. By conducting the survey biannually, it allows us to track and report trends over time. The data for the survey was collected this year between May and June of 2023. So it’s current data and we had strong participation with close to 3,900 survey respondents. I want to just go over the demographic breakdown of the survey respondents because I think it’s important to understand who we’ve surveyed and what the demographic differences are and we’ll talk about that as we go through some of the survey findings. From a very high level, just from an age demographic, about 26% of the respondents were under the age of 26, 35% were age 26 to 35, and 39% were age 36 and over. So we really had a good mix of just age respondents. If we take a look at the employment status, 52% were employed full-time, 21% employed part-time, and 27% were unemployed, and we’ll talk a little bit about that further as we go through some of the survey findings. Additionally, 21% were international students and 32% identified as caregivers. And again, we’ll dive into that a little bit further as we go through some of the survey findings.

0:04:22.2 BD: Great. That sounds a lot of really great diverse sense of respondents and so that really can give us some intel on adult learner behavior. So as we’re working with hundreds of colleges and universities to help them engage and enroll adult learners, what would you say is the biggest disconnect between how maybe graduate and undergraduate admission teams approach the task of recruiting adult learners? Really in light of what we learned from the survey about what perspective students are looking for and how they’re approaching the college search process to find the right institution for them.

0:05:00.3 TH: Yeah, I think we’re really going to uncover some key insights and takeaways in the survey findings today. Primarily though, I think that most institutions are trying to recruit adult learners through generalized marketing campaigns. It’s critical to first uncover and identify student intent first and then speak to that intent in your marketing campaigns. In our survey, we asked what were the primary reasons for continuing your education? And this really is a pointed question that we asked to uncover student intent. In fact, we typically use these micro surveys with our partner schools to uncover and speak to this intent directly. The number one response to this question was to advance my career at 38%, with pursue my passions and make a difference in the world coming in at second and third. So it’s important to identify this intent and then easily customize your digital ads and marketing campaigns to speak directly to that prospective student and what they’re looking to achieve in continuing their educational journey. In addition to identifying intent, it’s also important to ensure that your SEO strategies are defined and optimized. In our survey, we found that students are relying primarily on web searches and school websites as the primary sources of information in their search. Other primary sources include social media and email, which we’ll talk about soon.

0:06:28.2 BD: Great. So let’s talk about the college website, since they seem to be so important. What are the common mistakes that schools may be making in terms of how they organize or present information meant for adult learners?

0:06:40.4 TH: Well, most institutions struggle with identifying who the primary audience is for their website. There’s always this internal struggle and balancing act trying to serve multiple constituents. Should the primary audience be prospective students, current students, or even alumni, but it’s important to note that the site should primarily serve prospective students. Today’s graduate and adult learners are highly pragmatic and stealth, and they’re doing their own research to identify programs and institutions of interest on their own. So can students easily find information they are seeking on their institution’s website? In our findings, we found that more than 93% of prospective students will go to your EDU site. And 90% of them said that a well-designed website improves their opinion of the school. While conversely, 85% of them said that a poorly designed website would negatively impact their opinion of the school. So in our survey, we asked specifically, what information were you most often trying to find when searching school websites? The number one response at 52% was programs offered. So this makes sense, again realizing that adult learners are highly pragmatic, that they are first researching programs and identifying if their program of interest is offered, right?

0:08:01.0 TH: So students older than 35 were disproportionately seeking information about programs offered off the school’s EDU website. Coming in second was admissions requirements at 47%, which also makes sense. So first they’re checking, is my program of interest available at your institution? And then what are the admissions requirements for that program? The next three most prominent categories that all focus on cost consciousness and price sensitivity, with college costs, financial aid, and scholarships, all being bucketed into that second, third and fourth category. It’s only after researching programs and admissions requirements that adult learners begin to research things like general information about the school, classes, or even faculty research interests. So it’s important that your program pages be easily accessible and items like admissions requirements, cost, aid, and outcomes, all be easily identifiable and accessible to prospective students on your program pages.

0:09:02.8 BD: Thanks, Todd. That’s such helpful information. What are some other digital channels that institutions should be emphasizing in their efforts to target and engage prospective students?

0:09:15.8 TH: As we discussed earlier, it’s important to identify a prospective student’s intent. And once you know their intent, you can serve them personalized messages that speak directly to that intent. In our survey, we asked adult learners what social media platforms they primarily use. The top four channels were YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn, specifically in that order. We also asked them on what channels would they most be willing to receive ads from colleges and universities. And the top three responses were Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram. Interestingly though, we also found that email still remains a tried and true communication channel. In fact, we see that prospective students are increasingly relying on recruiting emails with the percentage of graduate adult learners who said that they consulted recruitment emails increasing from 13% in our previous survey to 20% in our latest survey. Even more encouraging is that 26% of the respondents under the age of 26 relied on recruitment emails to learn more about graduate and adult education programs. And 75% of high school students said they want to hear from colleges via email. This is suggesting that future adult learners will also rely on emails more heavily.

0:10:38.1 BD: Right. That’s so helpful because I think so many enrollment leaders think that email isn’t dead, but their survey really proves otherwise. So what do we know about the process of adult learners? You mentioned that they’re very pragmatic, but in terms of how they follow and research where to attend college, that an institution should inform their strategy, right? How should they think about increasing the number of applications and matriculants within their adult learner population?

0:11:12.4 TH: Well, we know that unlike traditional undergraduate admissions, the adult learner process is not linear. Adult learners often have competing responsibilities in their lives. They might be working full time or caring for a family member, and it takes them a considerable amount of time to figure out how continuing their education fits best into their personal lives. So we have used the term highly pragmatic a couple of times now, and this is very evident in the time that it takes for an adult learner to decide on continuing their educational journey. In our survey, we found that 39% of the respondents searched for information about going back to school for at least 12 months, with 24% of them saying 18 months or longer. In fact, in our findings, adult learners can linger in the search phase for up to 36 months. Additionally, 80% of our survey respondents also reported stealth shopping. Now, this means that they are not interacting with your marketing campaigns and choosing to remain anonymous until they decide to apply. This is a major shift in behavior. Just a decade ago, the stealth shopping rate was just 20%. So it’s important not to overlook prospects who haven’t engaged with your marketing campaigns and to keep them into your campaign for up to three years.

0:12:31.9 TH: Once this highly pragmatic adult learner decides to apply to an institution, their list is very short. Again, very unlike traditional undergrad admissions, where a prospective student may be applying to eight to ten colleges, an adult learner is only applying to two on average. So if you make the list, we’d like to say that they are yours to lose at this point. This lengthy research phase and short application list is a testament to why your EDU site must be easy to navigate and find critical information to prospective students.

0:13:08.0 BD: Great, that is so interesting. So they’re spending a lot of time researching before they’re actually able to commit. So that leads me to think, Todd, what are some messages that institutions should really be talking about, right? Because that’s a really long runway to communicate to a prospective student. But in terms of like email content and such, what are some key ideas or themes that an institution may want to express to a student that may be interested in pursuing a degree program?

0:13:47.0 TH: Well, it’s important to understand, realizing that the runway is long and it can be up to three years and these highly stealth students may not be interacting with your campaigns, it doesn’t mean they’re not reading them and doing their own research. So again, I think it’s really important to keep that first factor in mind on uncovering that student intent and continuing to communicate to them throughout that entire journey. Many institutions make the mistake that if a student doesn’t interact with a campaign within one term or within one year, they’re dropping them from that campaign and not including them in further communications. As we know now with this highly pragmatic adult learner, it’s important to keep them through that 36-month cycle at a minimum and ensure that you continue to gather valuable intelligence, continue to see if you can uncover additional intent messaging and speak to that, whether it be affordability, admissions requirements, outcomes, those are all very important and institutions should be keeping that top of mind as they’re continuing this continual marketing journey.

0:14:57.8 BD: Great, thank you, that’s so helpful. So what can or should institutions do to really manage adult learners who are thinking about cost, right? And we know that there’s a price sensitivity, so in other words, we know that there are a lot of factors that go into setting tuition prices and other student fees, but what can colleges do realistically to attract more students for whom price is the most important or one of the most important decisions in whether they decide to enroll or not enroll at your institution.

0:15:36.0 TH: This is such an important question, and price sensitivity and cost consciousness came up several times in our survey. In fact, financial aid, cost of attendance and online support services were of primary importance to prospective students. Financial aid and cost moved into the number one spot of importance, up from third in our previous survey, clearly indicating increased cost consciousness. It’s important to note the increased importance of online support services as well. Many students are now requiring and placing a greater emphasis on the college support services to assist them with their online education. So how will they obtain support when taking an asynchronous course in the evening or on the weekend, or how will they interact with faculty or their peers or even their advisor? These are all important factors and are now playing into how prospective students rate an institution’s quality. But let’s dig in a little bit further and take a closer look at financial aid and cost. In our survey, we asked, what sources of financial support will you have in continuing their education? The number one response to this question was scholarships. In fact, 55% of the respondents noted scholarships. This is up considerably from our previous survey, which was 42%.

0:16:55.8 TH: So this is a clear indicator that scholarships are becoming more common in the adult learner market and prospective students are relying more heavily on them. After scholarships, the second source of funding was financial aid and loans, and then in third and fourth were household income and family savings. So as we drill down further, we also asked, what is the most you are willing to spend annually on continuing your education, including loans and personal financial sources? And 50% of the respondents said less than $15,000, with 25% of them saying less than $5,000. Now, at first glance, this is somewhat shocking and alarming, but we must remember that adult learners may not be taking a full class load and thus their willingness to pay is likely based on the part-time classes or whatever fits into their schedule. But what’s really prominent here to me is the increased dependence on scholarship at the graduate level. And it’s not just dependence, it’s the anticipation and with prospective students really relying on that to fund their education.

0:18:08.5 BD: Great, thank you. So, did we learn anything new through the survey in terms of what students are looking for in regards to program design or course modality?

0:18:23.9 TH: We did. In fact, in our survey, we asked which course format they preferred, and not surprisingly, they were split on their response. 55% of the respondents preferred all or mostly in-person classes and 39% preferred all or mostly online classes. It’s important to note that 21% of the respondents were international students. So if we break them out, we find that 22% of domestic students seek all or mostly in-person classes compared to 41% of international students. And conversely, only 9% of international students seek all or mostly online courses in comparison to 22% of domestic students. It’s important to note that the preference doesn’t always equate to reality for adult learners though. So while they may prefer one format, due to competing priorities, their preference may not be the reality. Thus, they are looking for choices. So 42% of the respondents are also looking for a mix of synchronous and asynchronous courses, indicating that need for flexibility. We also found that 55% of the respondents preferred mostly weekday classes and 37% of them preferred daytime classes. So if we refer back to the participant profile, we see that these responses were likely influenced by the high number of unemployed or part-time respondents. But again, these students are looking for flexibility in the modality options and the times that they’re offered.

0:19:52.9 BD: Thanks, Todd, for that information. There is another question that I just thought of. We know that adult learners are so different. So let’s talk a little bit about how institutions can segment their marketing or support that they provide adult learners. Since adults are at different points of their lives, some may have enrolled in an academic program and had to step away from the program and are now deciding how they re-enter the institution versus some adult learners who chose to enter the workforce and are now choosing to explore an academic degree that will help them advance or change their career. So can you talk a little bit about that more?

0:20:35.6 TH: Sure. Really important. I’m so glad you asked this question because it’s really important to understand and segment different types of audiences. We’ve talked primarily within our survey findings around new graduate adult learners. But there’s this whole other category that you’re addressing now that are really the students that were in their educational journey and for some reason had to step away. In higher ed, we call these primarily stop-outs. That’s the terminology that we use. And it’s really important to keep your stop-outs or those that have paused their educational journey in your marketing campaigns. You should be continuing to communicate with them and have a dedicated conflow that speaks to them directly. Again, you want to understand why did they step away from their educational journey? What was the primary factor in doing so? And then how does the institution support them and re-engaging them? So I think it’s really important to understand why do students step away? And as we talk about students that are at one point within their educational journey and they stopped out for one reason or another, we find that cost is a primary concern. So just like in the new student segment, cost and price sensitivity is the primary concern for your stop-outs or those that have discontinued their studies.

0:21:56.9 TH: And we found in our 2021 survey that high cost came in at 23%. So 23% of the respondents said that high cost stopped them from continuing their education. And that’s up now in our 2023 survey. That is now 30%. So again, additional cost consciousness and price sensitivity is also impacting this segment as well. In fact, 60% of our respondents who discontinued their studies, said that a more affordable tuition would lead them to consider going back to school. So I’m landing again here a common theme around this price sensitivity and cost consciousness is not only are your new students relying heavily on financial aid and scholarships and alternate forms of financing, your stop-outs and your continuing students are also looking for that. So I would encourage institutions to identify this population first to ensure that you’re communicating with them, identifying the intent of their stop-out, and then developing strategies to overcome that intent, improve the yield to engage them back at your institution.

0:23:07.3 BD: Thank you, Todd. That’s such a nice reminder, really, that institutions, their mission is for retainment. And so thinking about how they can provide resources to engage the students that have stopped out because of costs with scholarships and support, so key and important in the work that we’re doing. So Todd, we’re just about out of time, but before we go, I really have to ask and really want us to delve into maybe sharing some top pieces of advice for anyone interested in optimizing our recruitment of adult learners as a means of increasing their total enrollment at their institution. So what are some most important steps that they can really take or lessons that they need to keep really front and center in the work that they’re doing?

0:24:00.9 TH: Yeah, I think for me, there were four real key takeaways in our survey findings. And I’ll group them, I’ll speak to each of those four takeaways. So first, I think it’s to ensure that your institution is beating students with marketing messages that speak to their intent. Right? You want to capture that intent, and then you want to speak to them on the channels that appeal to them most, including your website, your social media, and your email. Right? So again, first capture that intent, and then customize your marketing messages to speak to that intent, and ensure that you’re speaking to them on the channel that is preferred by them. Secondly, we also know that graduate adult learners often linger in the search phase for extended periods of time. So don’t overlook students who have not engaged with your marketing campaigns recently. Keep them in your campaign until they opt out for at least 36 months. Because again, they’re in that linger phase as highly pragmatic adult learner, 24% of them are lingering in that phase for greater than 18 months. Third, I would say students are increasingly making their enrollment decisions based on cost, right? We’ve talked about that quite a bit today. So make sure that information about program tuition, fees, scholarship, other opportunities, and financial aid is displayed prominently on your program pages.

0:25:24.0 TH: In addition to that, you should also be showing the ROI. What is the outcome, right? And my suggestion always is when you’re showing ROI is not to show the starting salary for the credential earned, but to show the median salary at the midpoint of the career of somebody with that credential. And then lastly, fourth, I would land on where possible to offer multiple modality and scheduling options to expand the appeal to graduate adult learners. Again, we know that these adult learners have competing responsibilities in their life. They may prefer one modality over the other, but reality for them is they really need flexibility based upon what’s happening in their lives and to ensure that they can continue that education, whether that be through asynchronous, synchronous, in-person, or remote coursework. They really require those different modalities and options to lead through completion.

0:26:25.4 BD: Great. Well, you’ve given us such a lot to think about, so much, and it seems as though this is really an effort and strategy that should be holistic across the entire institution, right? And so it seems as though others outside of the admissions office can support a little bit. Can you talk a little bit about who they should be collaborating with across the institution to really meet the needs of adult learners?

0:26:55.5 TH: Sure, what a great question, and it’s one of the things that as we meet with partners, we like to always ask the question, who here in the room, and we’re within a large room of people, is involved or handles enrollment management? And I always like to ask that question when I’m in a group of a large group of people with their diverse offices across campus, because really everyone should be raising their hand, right? Enrollment is an institutional-wide strategy. So as you’re looking to address these survey findings and to communicate with your adult learners, it’s important to coordinate with your marketing group, your online support services, or what are the support services on campus, your career services, your academic folks. It’s all important to get that holistic approach to supporting students, to get them to not only re-engage, but to select your institution, select your program, and understand the value of education and doing that, what it means to them with their journey, their educational journey.

0:28:01.7 BD: Great, that’s such helpful information. And so great advice for enrollment leaders and senior leaders at institutions to think about as they grow their adult learner population. So we’ve covered a lot of ground today. Thank you so much. But where can people go to learn more about their survey findings and related insights about what we’ve been talking about today?

0:28:24.8 TH: Well, the things we’ve been talking about today on the podcast can be found online at You’ll see a white paper there as well. It’ll be in the link to this podcast. So please click that link. Let us know if you have any questions. Please feel free to reach out to us directly. We’re always willing to answer those questions. But again, this can be found, this white paper can be found at

0:28:48.1 BD: Great. And that white paper is Meet Your New Graduate and Adult Learner page, right?

0:28:53.5 TH: Yes, it is. Thank you, Beth.

0:28:54.7 BD: Perfect. So thanks so much, Todd, for the time today. You know I always love sitting down with you and talking about adult learners and their behavior and their needs. And so it’s always a pleasure to sit with you and talk more.

0:29:11.2 TH: This has really been great. Thank you for the opportunity, Beth.


0:29:17.2 S1: Thank you for listening. Please join us next week for a conversation with one of the nation’s foremost legal experts on affirmative action in college admissions. Until then, thank you for your time.


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