Industry Spotlight

Valuable insights from UPCEA's trusted corporate partners.

Does Higher Ed’s Value Proposition Resonate with Adult Learners?

Recent higher education trends have made it clear that now more than ever, colleges and
universities must have successful strategies for engaging adult learners.

The US birth rate has declined steadily over the past decade, leading to an inevitable reduction
in traditional college enrollees aged 18 to 24. There is also an increasing number of students
simply opting out of the college experience, choosing alternative paths instead.

Higher education institutions face an uphill battle to grow or even maintain enrollment
numbers—and focusing more of their marketing and enrollment efforts on adult learners is one
viable solution.

Adult Learners: The New College Freshmen?

Data from the National Student Clearinghouse, as presented by UPCEA’s very own Jim Fong,
reveals that there is a tremendous opportunity to attract adult learners. The total addressable
market (TAM) of adult enrollment candidates is estimated at over 242 million, including:

  • 93 million adults aged 25+ with a degree
  • 39 million adults with some college but no degree
  • 70 million adults with a high school degree or GED
  • 40 million adults with no high school degree or GED

The pool of potential adult learners far exceeds the traditional higher education market, which
totals a mere 19.3 million potential students for undergraduate and graduate programs
combined. Furthermore, traditional student enrollments in undergraduate and graduate
programs decreased by 4.1% from 2021 to 2022 alone.

It’s safe to say that adult learners who return to school for reasons such as upskilling, changing
careers, or pursuing micro-credentials have become an indispensable population.

Understanding the Adult Learner’s Perspective on Higher Ed

While adult learners present new enrollment opportunities, it’s important to acknowledge that
they are definitively different from traditional college freshmen.

If higher education institutions wish to successfully expand adult learning programs, they must
embrace and convey a compelling value proposition. From branding to marketing to enrollment
strategies, the methods for drawing adult enrollees are in need of an overhaul.

Competition for adult learners is high

As any marketer knows, a large TAM doesn’t automatically translate to high adoption rates.
Higher ed has long relied on traditional enrollees to grow enrollments, leaving the adult learning
market open to competitors offering alternative education pathways such as corporate training,
private online courses, and intensive boot camps.

As the number of college freshmen heads off the demographic cliff, the adult learning space is
certain to become more imperative—and more competitive. Any school that aims to stay ahead
of the pack needs to dive deep and build a new understanding of what adult students want—and

Adult learners have unique priorities

Though the adult learning demographic is hardly monolithic, this category of prospective
students does share several characteristics.

  • They prioritize professional outcomes. Adult learners care more about the end results
    offered by new learning and less about the “rite of passage” experience prioritized by
    many traditional students.
  • They look for program reputation over school brand. While college freshmen tend to
    emphasize brand value of an institution, adult learners are more interested in reputable
    programs with verifiable outcomes.
  • They scrutinize prerequisites. Adult learners value their resources differently from
    younger students and are uninterested in investing time or money into requirements that
    aren’t directly tied to their career goals. Seeking the most efficient path forward, adult
    learners may steer clear of programs with prerequisites that will extend their timeline.
  • They want funding solutions. Adult learners are deeply attuned to ROI and consider cost
    a major factor when researching education options. This demographic looks for clear
    pricing with explicitly outlined funding sources, such as scholarships, grants, financial
    aid, and even continuing education coverage through a current employer.
  • They desire flexibility. Adult learners rarely enjoy the luxury of enrolling in a full-time
    educational program. Members of the over-25 demographic frequently juggle work,
    family, and community obligations that preclude the full-time learning younger students
    often embrace. Adults show a preference for online or hybrid programs as well as
    asynchronous or self-paced programs that allow them to customize the learning
    experience to their current life season.

Attracting Adult Learners: Start with a Fresh Strategy

To appeal to adult learners, higher education institutions must examine—and perhaps
rebuild—their outreach programs from the ground up. The old messages aren’t working on
newer generations of adult learners, and schools need to respond accordingly.

  1. Evaluate your current marketing and enrollment strategies
    Who are you reaching with your current marketing and enrollment efforts? Does your messaging
    exclude crucial segments of the adult learning demographic? Are the adult learner’s priorities
    reflected throughout your marketing creative and program curriculum?
  2. Develop a message that resonates with this new audience
    How can you fine-tune your message to meaningfully connect with adult learners? Or perhaps
    you need to begin with fresh market research and analysis of your programming.
    Adult learners are savvy shoppers with high standards for how they spend their time and money.
    From ad copy to class structure, you must speak directly to the adult learner’s mind and
  3. Streamline the enrollment process
    How frictionless is your enrollment process? Every form, click, call, email, or “next step” is
    work—and that’s especially true for adults who already have hectic lives.
    Removing excessive points of friction from your enrollment process could mean the difference
    between gaining a new student or losing them before they even reach the point of purchase.
    Though it’s true that some friction can serve to disqualify “poor fit” prospects, unnecessary
    friction will only dissuade a prospective student who may have been a great fit for your program.

Adult Learners Are within Your Reach

Colleges and universities have an imperative to extend their educational outreach beyond high
school graduates to the adults who comprise the largest segment of our country’s population. If
these institutions truly believe learning should be a lifelong endeavor, they must make it
accessible and desirable to the millions of adults who are hungry for lifelong learning.

Get to know what adult learners care about, what motivates them, and how education can lend
new purpose to the lives of those with many more decades of life to live. If you align your
marketing and programming to the needs of this ever-present community, you’ll be setting your
school up for ongoing success.

See how MindMax can help.

More Industry Spotlights:

Making the Case: Marketing to Adult Learners with Data

With enrollments declining and as a tight labor market reaches record-low unemployment,, marketers and recruiters in higher education now face the difficult task of finding new students in...

SEO & Digital Advertising: Jet Fuel for Your Higher Education Marketing Strategy

If you were asked what digital channels facilitate your most qualified prospects’ journey to inquiry or application, would you know the answer? It’s no secret...