College enrollment is declining, according to recent data released by the National Student Clearinghouse, and a big part of the issue is demographics. While high school graduation rates are near all-time highs, there are simply fewer students of high school age. Fewer high school graduates means fewer potential college freshmen.
Declining enrollments are putting financial strain on colleges and universities across the country. However, some are making up the difference by ramping up their enrollment of working adults, both graduate students and the over 30 million Americans with some college experience, but no degree.
Of course, enrolling adult students requires a different approach. Here are some suggestions to appeal to adult learners and thrive as traditional aged student enrollments decline:
Adult learners care deeply about which academic programs you offer and the quality of those programs, but they’re also just as interested in how those programs are delivered. Adults looking to add rigorous academic programs to already busy lives need flexible format and scheduling options. Online, hybrid, competency-based, accelerated, evening and weekend classes are all popular options. Make it clear to these prospective students that you understand the constraints they face and have programs tailored to meet their needs.
Be responsive (via every modality).
When prospective adult students inquire with an institution, they expect an immediate response and a timely decision. These aren’t high school kids applying a year ahead of time and expecting to wait months to find out if they got in. Leading adult and online programs have response times measured in hours and enrollment processes measured in days. They also leverage the full spectrum of communication tools – not just emails and phone calls, but also text messaging, social media, video chats and mobile apps – to communicate with prospects.
Begin with the end in mind.
Unlike most 18 year olds, working adults returning to school have a fairly clear understanding of underlying motivations and long term goals. For the vast majority, it’s about career advancement and to better provide for themselves and their families. For some, it’s a personal goal or a way to serve as a better role model for their children. In either case, it’s important to emphasize how you’re going to help them reach that goal. Highlight how you are going to support them in balancing work, family and academic commitments. Emphasize how you are going to ensure that they leave prepared to not only find a job, but achieve long-term career success.
Prepare them for a strong start
Whether its adjusting to the additional rigor of a graduate program or the general process of returning to school after years or decades away, adult learners often need support getting off on the right foot. Beginning these discussions during the enrollment process not only improves students’ chances for success, but also differentiates your institution from the competition. Work with prospective students to develop a plan for success. Get them thinking about the obstacles that might come up and have them do some contingency planning in advance. Address any concerns they may have about unfamiliar technologies or processes.
In short, make sure they hit the ground running and do so with the self-confidence to persist through the hiccups that invariably present themselves along the way.