Rethinking How You Market to Post-Traditional Students


By: Emma Rose Aug 28, 2018

Rethinking How You Market to Post-Traditional Students

What is a post-traditional student? The term was coined by John Ebersole of Excelsior College. Some institutions use the older term non-traditional students, but post-traditional is more all encompassing. Non-traditional historically referred to students who were older than traditional college age or were returning to school after time in the workforce. In the fall semester of 2014, degree granting post-secondary institutions enrolled 11,758 students between the ages of 18 and 24 according to National Center for Education Statistics.. In that same semester they enrolled 8,193 students older than 24. By that metric, non-traditional students already look like a demographic worth pursuing, but age isn’t the only factor that defines a post-traditional student. Post traditional student may live off-campus. They may study at night or online. They may be pursuing certification programs instead of degrees or they may be furthering their education with an MBA or professional certificate. Some study part time because they are single parents or are holding down a full-time job. As early as 2012, about 70% of students met at least one of these criteria. Although more recent numbers are harder to come by due to data gathering cycles – if you look around it’s clear that post-traditional students are the new normal.

What drives post-traditional students?

Attracting post-traditional students may require a shift in the way you think about student recruitment. The classic college experience isn’t all that exciting or relevant to post-traditional students. They are more interested in whether your program is flexible, accessible and able to help them achieve their goals. These students see education as a means to an end. They might be looking to change careers or they might seeking training that will make them eligible for a promotion. In an EducationDynamics survey, 66% of students named a career-related reason for enrolling in undergraduate study, of these, 29% named transition to a new career and 16% were looking for promotion.

Connect the dots for post-traditional students to show them how studying with your institution will help them get the promotion, job, or leg up they’re looking for.
Other students are hoping to improve themselves or make a better life for their family. Their concerns are more complex than those of traditional students.
Post traditional students may worry about:

  • Lack of time to pursue education
  • How they’ll pay bills
  • Scheduling conflicts with work and family
  • Transportation issues
  • Whether required courses will be useful
  • Their self-image and how others view them
  • Whether their credits will transfer.

Many post-traditional students return to education at a time when their lives are in transition. That means they’re likely more stressed, and more pressed for time, than traditional students. Make sure your messaging acknowledges their concerns and answers their objections.

Where Post-Traditional Students Enroll

Most post-traditional students enroll at either a public 4-year college (35%) or a public community or technical college (35%). A much smaller proportion end up at private or for-profit colleges according to a study by Aslanian Market Research.

While you can’t control what type of institution you’re marketing, you can make smart choices about how you target your marketing. The same study found that the majority of post-traditional students (68%) prefer to enroll at an institution that is less than 30 miles from their home.
Another study, by Aslanian Market Research and The Learning House found that even students who go to school online prefer to study with an institution that’s less than 25 miles away.

Both online and classroom students like to be close to campus so they can use the library, talk to professors and administrative staff, and meet up with study groups. Marketing to students within 30 miles of campus will likely result in more enrollments.

Key Takeaways

Enrolling more post-traditional students doesn’t take magic. All you need is a shift in perspective. Focus on their specific needs and concerns. The following strategies will help secure the best results:

  • Get to them quickly – About 40% of undergraduates will make their decision within four weeks, the Post-Traditional Student report found. So responsive communication is essential. Contact centers can help with this. Look for a contact center with staff who are trained in talking to post-traditional students.
  • Follow-up – Post traditional students are busy and they decide quickly, so don’t wait to follow up. Make resources available in multiple ways – downloads, real people to talk to, mailed information – so you can meet students where they are.
  • Be upfront about costs – Cost of tuition and fees is the most important factor for many students returning to school. Be clear and open with post-traditional students about costs and opportunities for aid. Offer trade-offs if possible or adjust cost to help them.
  • Highlight convenience and flexibility – Because post-traditional students are juggling the competing priorities of family, work and education, they’ll appreciate convenience and flexibility. Tell them about your online curriculum, and what happens if they need to take a semester off.
  • Focus your efforts locally – Focusing the bulk of your efforts on students near your physical location will likely deliver the best return on investment.
  • Clearly express your return on education – Post-traditional students aren’t going to school because it’s what’s expected of them. Their parents and teachers aren’t pushing them to continue their education. Instead, they are usually seeking a clear return for their education investment – like a job promotion or new career.

For a deeper look at what post-traditional students want and how to market to them, download our report or request a one on one meeting to customize your strategies.