• August 29, 2015

8 Strategies for Recruiting Adult Students to 4-Year Colleges

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."


1. 11165669 - September 28, 2009 at 07:42 am

Since this is such a hot topic.

2. jaysanderson - September 28, 2009 at 10:39 am

A common sense approach to attracting adult students...I'm certain that the suggestions above will be ignored by my institution. Everyone treated like 18 year olds here: No evening classes, etc.

I really have to find another job.

3. 11132507 - September 28, 2009 at 12:33 pm

Some good advice, but many 4-year schools won't follow it because it won't move them up in the USN&WR rankings, and after all, what other goal could there possibly be? Some schools might have some sort of adult student ghetto stashed away in a Continuing Education division, but I know of schools that offer few if any undergraduate courses at night, have stingy transfer credit policies, even maintain a policy that all undergraduates attend full-time.

People vote with their feet. There's a reason (actually many reasons) why most adult students go to community colleges instead of 4-year schools.

4. yorklibrary - September 28, 2009 at 04:06 pm

I thought this was interesting. You probably already have it. In fact I don't know if we are actively persuing adult undergraduates. But thought of you.

5. richardlutz - September 28, 2009 at 07:44 pm

For profit Universities, and a small number of non profit Universities, have found that adult students can be a very rich market, but they are willing to do the things that adult students demand.
Schools that primarily deal with traditional students often do not care about or understand the adult market.
If the number of traditional students declines then traditional schools may be forced to better address the adult market to survive, but I do not think that they will become more adult student friendly willingly.

6. jpeyton - September 29, 2009 at 09:28 am

This is interesting. Here is one of the comments:
A common sense approach to attracting adult students...I'm certain that the suggestions above will be ignored by my institution. Everyone treated like 18 year olds here: No evening classes, etc.

I really have to find another job.

7. marybabysteps - September 30, 2009 at 07:59 pm

These are all excellent suggestions. When I was a community college academic adviser, I would have been so happy if my administration had taken any of these into consideration.

8. patmcgraw - October 01, 2009 at 03:06 pm

Wow - so many 'positive' comments!

Can I ask the group how your institution currently manages relationships with prospective students? Are any of you interested in lead scoring/prioritization and management that can help increase conversion rates? Or nurturing programs that build strong relationships with prospective students that will enroll in a future term? Or programs that improve your ability to increase retention and referrals?

Sounds like there is a great deal of opportunity out there!

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