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Reaching Adult Learners

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Continuing education is an all-encompassing term that describes any learnings that are pursued after a student has earned an undergraduate degree or some college credits. In most cases, it refers to practical programs or classes for adult learners on a part-time basis with the goal of updating knowledge or skills in a professional field. Examples of continuing education include:

  • Graduate Degrees
  • Vocational School Degrees
  • Professional Certifications
  • Technical Skills Programs
  • Management Programs
  • Licensing Renewals
  • Military Training

Adult learners, usually over the age of 25, are becoming an increasingly important demographic in the education landscape. With disruptions in the economy, combined with evolving career requirements, the adult learner audience is looking for new ways to gain specific workplace skills.

Accordingly, most continuing education students care about flexibility for work and family, ease of application, cost, credits or time required to complete, and career advancement. They are different from the “traditional” student graduating high school and seeking an undergraduate degree, and reaching them won’t be as simple as creating a new marketing campaign or building an online program. 

The future can be prosperous and this market is viable—but it won’t come by sitting back and expecting an influx of adult learners to counterbalance a declining traditional student population. We must understand the unique needs of this group, some of whom face significant barriers to returning to school, and show them how degree or credential attainment is possible.

Keep in mind that learners pursuing continuing education programs are often asking themselves:

  • What do I want to achieve? Is this a requirement for my profession, or am I looking to open new doors?
  • Can I afford it?
  • Do I have the time? Is it the right time? Will I have to sacrifice time with my family?
  • Can I stick with it and finish?
  • What’s the best format for me?
  • How do I find the right program? Will I be accepted?
  • Will this degree be respected?
  • Who can advise me on what my options are?
  • Will I be more successful with this degree versus without?

Considering this, let’s review five key ways to reach adult learners interested in continuing ed:

Tip 1: Make Your Website Findable, Navigable, and Personalized

Online research is one of the main ways adult learners will choose their continuing education program. Dig into analytics to see what keywords and phrases visitors are using to find your site, and create a smart SEO strategy. Reach out to industry-specific publications and forums to build a network of inbound links.

It’s also important to remember that drone footage of campus, pictures of dorm life, and images of sporting events likely won’t appeal to adult learners. Instead, tailor images to reflect what they will experience with your institution. Or even consider a distinct subdomain or microsite for adult learners.

When it comes to navigation, make a clear path to the things they care about—completion requirements, format, costs—to help this time-constrained audience quickly answer key questions.

Finally, given their diversity of needs, personalizing to the adult learner population is an excellent opportunity to experience quick wins. Try geofencing to engage people in a specific area. Replace language about residence halls and campus dining when a user has identified themselves as an adult learner. Use chatbots instead of requiring phone conversations. With so much catering towards high school students, adult learners will appreciate content that demonstrates an understanding of their unique circumstances. 

Tip 2: Focus on Conversations

With this audience, shouting from your marketing megaphone may not produce great results. Instead, tell stories, focus on outcomes, and explain work / learning integrations. Share student success stories and explain how people integrated coursework with existing commitments and responsibilities. For adults reluctant to make the leap, these narratives can be quite motivational. 

Additionally, demonstrate a commitment to continuing ed by training staff to respond quickly and with empathy. Take an in-depth look at the language and tone they are using, as well as the copy on your website and social media channels. Certain higher ed buzzwords can have little meaning to adult learners, so focus on language that keeps people engaged and moving through the application funnel.

Tip 3: Be Smart With Digital Promotion and Organizational Relationships

Similar to building a network of inbound links, consider banner ads and native advertising with these content providers. They might even offer outbound lead generation services as well.

Create landing pages for individual programs to deliver relevant content, enter individuals into email campaigns, and push leads into your CRM.

Utilize social media advertising to reach prospective students through the mediums they consume most often. Facebook is the most-used social media channel among Millenials, Gen Xers, and Baby Boomers, so maintain a dedicated presence there, both organic and paid. LinkedIn ads and sponsored InMails are other ways to target these segments.

Finally, take a keen look at employers in your area and figure out which are rewarding credentialing and corporate learning with career advancement. Partnerships with businesses in your area can be an excellent source of qualified leads.

Tip 4: Highlight Program Flexibility and Accelerated Options

Most adult learners are driven by promotions, raises, or career shifts. Adult learners are self-motivated, bring experience to the classroom, and prefer practical teachings. For continuing ed institutions, this means programs must deliver skills and knowledge directly related to the workplace.

Make it easy to learn about accelerated formats, transfer credits, and how advanced placement works. Most adult learners want to finish quickly without depleting their bank accounts, so highlight how previous schooling and work experience translate into credit hours. Similarly, keep in mind that most learners are likely to prefer evening, weekend, and online programs.

Tip 5: Make the Application Process Simple

Pathways to continuing education programs—and how they are financed—can vary significantly. Some students want open courses that require only a basic questionnaire and credit card to sign up. Some will submit to a more rigorous application process. Some will rely on employers to reimburse all or part of the tuition.

Be sure to provide rich resources and reduce friction when it comes to applying for both programs and financial aid. Is the application usable on mobile devices? Does it take hours to complete? Are transcripts and letters of recommendation, which may be hard for adult learners to obtain, required? Overall, convenience and time required to apply are critical.

Wrap Up

The era of high school, to college, to the workplace until you retire is over. Economic factors, combined with changing workplace requirements, have made continuing education desirable for many.

But simply expecting a windfall in continuing ed students to outweigh downward trends in traditional student applications will not render desired outcomes. This population is burgeoning and motivated, but appealing to them will require a change in marketing and communication techniques. 

Understanding their pragmatic nature, desire for work / life balance, and their key questions will certainly help you pivot your strategy and reach this population.

Last Updated: Mar 23, 2021 11:00 AM

Photo of Laura Rives

Laura Rives
VP of Sales and Marketing


Content Marketing