Admissions & Student Aid

8 Strategies for Recruiting Adult Students to 4-Year Colleges

September 27, 2009

As the number of adults seeking higher education has increased, the competition to recruit them has become more intense. Although many four-year institutions have enhanced their outreach to adults in recent years, others are still wading into that nontraditional market.

What are the keys to expanding undergraduate classes to include more adults? At the annual conference of the National Association for College Admission Counseling here on Friday, Brenda K. Harms proposed several strategies.

Ms. Harms, a client consultant with Stamats Inc., a higher-education marketing company in Iowa, urged admissions officials to think more creatively about how they recruit older students, who have different needs and expectations than do teenage applicants. "What you say, where you say it, and who is listening have never been more important," she said.

Ms. Harms offered eight suggestions for steps admissions offices could take "right now." She recommended that colleges:

  • Evaluate how they track data on prospective students. She advised colleges to develop a rating system for each prospect—based on the likelihood that he or she would enroll—and devote the most time to the ones who seem serious.
  • Audit their internal practices for dealing with adults. If those practices are the same as the ones for traditional-age students, Ms. Harms said, they are probably not as effective as they should be.
  • Spend serious time in the community. Making connections with businesses, temporary-employment agencies, and people who have the ears of potential students can help colleges better understand their local market.
  • Go back and contact every adult who has applied in the last 12 months. "Life has changed significantly for a whole lot of adults in the last year," Ms. Harms said.
  • Create a focus group of current adult students. Ask them how the institution could better serve them.
  • Ask current adult students to invite a friend to a class. Letting other adults experience life as a student might encourage them to enroll.
  • Offer résumé-writing workshops for current adult students and one guest of their choice.
  • Do not underestimate the power of happy students—or unhappy ones. "If I'm a 35-year-old living in your community and I have an outrageous experience at your institution, I'm telling everyone," Ms. Harms said. "There's not a dollar value in the world that can fix that."