As institutions seek to grow enrollment, demographic trends suggest they’ll need to look beyond the traditional high school graduate pipeline. After decades of steady growth, the number of high school graduates is projected to level out before making a downward turn in 2025. In response, many institutions have already begun to focus on attracting and enrolling working adults and other non-traditional learners. But finding, reaching, and recruiting adult students is easier said than done.
In fact, compared to reaching traditional-aged high schoolers, engaging prospective adult learners can feel like riding off into the wild west. Where are they? Who are they? Where do they work? And how do you talk to the ones who are most likely to benefit from, and respond to, your outreach?
That last question is crucial because the adult learner market’s greatest upside also presents its greatest challenge: It’s massive. In 2021, there were around 96 million adults in the U.S. with a high school degree who had not completed higher education compared to just 3.6 million who graduated high school that year. And that’s not even including the 100+ million adults with an associate's degree or higher who might be interested in upskilling or advanced education. Where does an enrollment marketing team even start?
If you’re one of the institutions hoping to attract more adult learners in 2023 and beyond, here are five NEW rules to help you avoid common pitfalls and execute more efficient outreach campaigns. (But we won’t leave you hanging with just a list of rules. At the end, we’ll also share how CollegeAPP+ helps institutions put these ideas into action.)
1) Focus on prospects who already intend to enroll
Let’s begin with a quick win. Wondering how you can immediately improve the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of your enrollment marketing campaigns? Start by eliminating “waste” in your ad spend.
The fact is, many adults simply aren’t interested in enrolling any time soon. In fact, according to the CollegeAPP+ database, roughly 25% of US adults between the ages of 25 and 65 intend to enroll in the next two years. Meaning that 75% do not.
By skipping out (for now) on the 75% who need convincing, you can focus your time, energy, and budget on the 25% who already intend to pursue higher education. These adults represent the low-hanging fruit on the enrollment marketing tree.
Of course, you’ll still have to convince them that your institution is the right one for them. But by filling your funnel with high-intent prospects, you’ll see better early returns from marketing efforts, and have a better shot at success further down the funnel.
2) Don’t rely on (increasingly restricted) digital tracking to find and target potential students
In the past, some institutions have tried to tackle the aforementioned challenge (the size of the market) by relying on behavioral targeting techniques to personalize and focus their digital marketing efforts.
Behavioral targeting promised to help advertisers get beyond basic demographic profiles by capturing and leveraging insight into a person’s actual behavior online — have they been to your site? What pages have they visited? What other sites are they visiting? What terms are they searching and what types of content are they consuming?
While behavior-based targeting is still a powerful tool in the toolkit, relying on it exclusively is risky business. From Apple’s privacy-conscious iOS update, to California’s Consumer Privacy Act, to the rising popularity of privacy-first browsers like Brave, it’s getting tougher and tougher for companies to track behavior online. This of course compromises the effectiveness of ad strategies that rely on this kind of tracking to reach the right audience. Consequently, colleges may want to adopt alternative approaches that aren’t as subject to the whims of regulators or tech companies.
As we’ll explain more below, tools like CollegeAPP+ that use survey responses and publicly available data provide all the targeting you need to find a relevant, receptive audience, but without the need for (increasingly restricted) online tracking. This kind of approach allows you to hover above the rocky terrain of shifting regulations and browser privacy settings so you can keep your enrollment marketing campaigns on target, and on track.
3) Don’t limit yourself to (increasingly sparse) lists of test takers
Purchasing lists of names from the College Board, ACT, and other test providers has become a standard recruitment practice for many institutions. And for good reason. It’s an efficient way to quickly gather contact information for a large group of more-than-likely college bound students.
While this approach may work fine for traditional students, it’s far less effective for institutions focused on the adult learner market. For starters, many adults simply aren’t likely to show up on those lists. Older potential students, those without a college degree as well as those considering graduate programs, already lead busy lives and may not have the time or resources to prepare for and take a standardized test. This is especially likely to be the case for economically disadvantaged students, who are (ironically) some of the individuals who stand to gain the most from furthering their education. And, with a growing number of institutions having dropped the requirements for these kinds of tests, it’s even less likely.
In addition, these lists no longer offer much of a competitive advantage. When every institution is buying the same lists from the same providers, everyone ends up recruiting from the same pool of prospective students.
To get ahead of the enrollment curve, institutions should look for ways to expand their potential market beyond the limited set of test takers while at the same time, staying focused on adults who actually intend to enroll (see rule #1, above) and who work in relevant occupations where they are likely to benefit from related programs at your institution (see rule #5, below).
4) Recruit a more diverse class by focusing on future intent (not past enrollment)
Traditional approaches to recruitment focus on finding “best-fit” prospects. Which sounds good, in theory. The problem is that “best fit” is often defined as closely matching the profile of current students. This is perfectly fine if you already have the kind of diverse student body you’re looking for. If not, then this approach can unwittingly perpetuate racial or socioeconomic disparities in enrollment by leading recruiters to target prospects who look and live like the students you already enroll.
If you’re hoping to grow the diversity of your student body, you may need to take a different approach — one that’s more compatible with a focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Broadly speaking, this means shifting from a focus on who you’ve been able to attract in the past, and instead opening up to the possibilities of who you could serve in the future.
Here again, focusing on prospects’ educational intent provides a way forward. The CollegeAPP+ database indicates that Black, Hispanic, IIndigenous, and persons of color tend to have higher probability of enrollment intent than than the national average. But we know many of them do not enroll, due to a range of practical and psychological barriers.
Reaching these individuals with timely information about financial aid, career guidance, and critical wraparound support services could be the nudge they need to get started on (or return to) their educational journey. To maximize the impact of this messaging, it should be aligned with their current occupation or career path, demonstrating the relevance of your offerings and services to their life and career goals. The result can expand the size and diversity of your prospect pool while still focusing your efforts based on metrics that matter.
5) Prioritize outreach and customize messaging based on prospects’ current career paths
It’s well established that personalized messaging is more effective than a generic, one-size-fits all approach. Enrollment teams can capitalize on this by customizing their outreach to align with the current career pathways of their prospects. For example, one way to streamline and optimize your ad spend initially might be to target your efforts towards adults who are already working in areas that align closely with the programs you offer. Current help desk technicians might be keen to learn about your IT Administration program while registered nurses would be especially interested in your BSN or other allied health offerings.
Side note: If you need help identifying realistic career pathways for your students, including potential “feeder jobs” to recruit from and “next step jobs” to highlight in marketing materials, Lightcast has data for that.
Even in cases where you’re targeting potential career switchers, this occupation-level insight is a valuable guide to messaging. Talking to a food prep worker about your accounting programs, for example, it might make sense to explain more about the accounting industry generally and address potential concerns about breaking into the business world (networking, job searching, etc.).
The importance of this tip also depends somewhat on the goal of your campaign. If you’re aiming for general brand awareness (i.e. you want adults to know that your school exists and that you are ready and willing to serve them), then this may not be as essential. But if you’re marketing a specific program (e.g. accounting, allied health, IT administration, etc.), it’s hard to overstate the value of being able to direct that advertising towards professionals already working in a related field.
Again, the big picture idea is that, when it comes to optimizing the efficiency of your campaigns, focus is key. Focusing on adults who intend to enroll AND who work in an occupation that’s aligned with your program offerings is the quickest, surest way to ensure no dollar is wasted, and that every piece of creative finds a receptive audience.
Putting ideas into action with CollegeAPP+
If you’re wondering how to execute on the above suggestions, we have a tool that can help. CollegeAPP+ was created to help institutions run more efficient marketing campaigns by targeting adults in relevant occupations who intend to enroll in higher education. It’s based on a proven methodology that comes from the world of electoral campaigns and then made its way to the private sector. Now, it’s available for higher education.
The underlying database is informed by large sample surveys (so far over 200K nationwide) and then uses machine learning predictive analytics to generate a “probability of intent to enroll” score for 243 million US adults. It also includes person-level occupation, location, and demographic data from publicly and commercially available sources. All this insight is made available to you through the platform so you can target your messaging, eliminate wasteful ad spend, get better engagement, and fill your pipeline with quality prospects.
For example, CollegeAPP+’s survey-driven, intent-based approach enables all five of the best practices outlined above:
1) CollegeAPP+ identifies individuals who intend to enroll in higher education within the next two years, so you can focus your message on those who are most interested and eager to hear it — and act on it.
2) Because CollegeAPP+ is based on surveys and publicly and commercially available data, it’s not impacted by growing privacy restrictions or web users who choose to reject browser cookies.
3) Rather than limiting your pool of prospects to test takers, you can skip that bottleneck entirely by expanding your prospect pool to the entire population of US adults — while still focusing your campaigns based on the criteria that counts, like a person’s current occupation and intent to enroll within the next two years.
4) While traditional “best fit” models cater to those who have historically enrolled, CollegeAPP+ looks at future intent. This gives you a better chance of reaching underserved populations who want to enroll, but may not due to lack of information about the support, resources, and opportunities available at your institution.
5) CollegeAPP+’s data on individuals’ current occupations allows you to deliver program-specific marketing campaigns to a relevant audience of professionals ready to upskill — or customize your messaging to speak to career switchers.
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