How colleges can recruit non-traditional students

Colleges are increasingly focused on recruiting adult students, Pat Donachie writes for Education Dive.

The population of adult learners will grow faster than the population of traditional students, according to a report by the Education Commission of the States (ECS). And as of January 2016, 73% of students had at least one non-traditional characteristic. The ECS report argued that colleges must recruit more non-traditional students—or else face a significant threat to their financial stability.

Donachie rounds up a few examples of institutions that have found successful strategies for recruiting non-traditional students.

University of Maryland University College (UMUC): Adult students have long been a key population for UMUC, the largest online public institution in the United States. According to Erika Orris, the school's senior vice president of strategic enrollment management, UMUC's strength has been its ability to differentiate itself from competitors with a deep understanding of the students they're recruiting. For example, today's students assume that online courses are flexible, Orris says, so UMUC doesn't "waste seconds" of advertising time promoting flexibility.

University of Missouri-St. Louis has emphasized time-to-completion rates in its advertising, according Allan Byrd, director of enrollment for the institution. Students also want to know about the strength and quality of programs, affordability, financial aid, and the likelihood of a job post-graduation, he adds.

Jacksonville University's strategy is to avoid viewing adult learners as a "monolith," according to Margaret Dees, the senior vice president of enrollment management and communications. For example, she warns other higher education leaders not to assume that every adult learning wants to take online courses. Some adult learners may actually prefer to learn in a quiet classroom outside of their home, Dees says.

Smith College has a program dedicated to adult learners called Ada Comstock Scholars, which enrolls 100 adult students and provides them with family housing and financial assistance. The program primarily recruits students through partnerships with community colleges, according to Sidonia Dalby, an associate director of admissions and the advisor for the scholarship program. Dalby emphasizes the importance of understanding student needs. For example, Smith makes a point of promoting its financial assistance, because adult learners may otherwise dismiss the institution based on their assumptions about cost (Donachie, Education Dive, 9/18). 

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