Is Your Institution Ready For the Enrollment Gap?


By: Emma Rose Apr 04, 2019

Is Your Institution Ready For the Enrollment Gap?

How Adult Learners Can Fill the Enrollment Gap for Colleges

Higher education is slowly recognizing a new normal. Traditional college students, 18-24 year olds right out of high school, are being replaced by adult learners with different expectations and concerns. Colleges that want to remain relevant into the future are already adjusting their recruitment strategies and focus to make room for these post-traditional adult learners.

Colleges that create a space for adult learners are positioned to see enrollments grow, while those that remain stuck in the past are likely to become part of history.

The forces behind the crisis

The number of enrollments across all sectors of higher education has fallen by 1 percent or more every year since enrollment peaked in 2010. For-profit institutions are seeing the greatest decline, and only four-year, public institutions managed to break even this year with a 0% change.

Several forces are combining to precipitate this crisis, but they all come back to one aggravating factor: The Great Recession.

Since 2008, when the U.S. economy took an unexpected downturn, American’s have begun to question rising college prices and look for ways to reduce or eliminate those costs. Some students have chosen a non-traditional option. They might defer school, pursue an unbundled version of their education, or earn microcredentials as they go. For these learners, college has become just one of many paths to post-secondary education.

But, the biggest factor threatening enrollment in the future is the falling birth rate. Fewer babies were born in 2017 than in any year since 1987. This is part of a general trend in declining birth rates since the Great Recession. Fewer babies being born means fewer children to grow up, finish high school and enroll in college. This is the looming enrollment gap. The decline in birth rates will hit college age around 2025 and continue to impact college enrollment for the foreseeable future.

Births in the United States have declined significantly since 2007 and have not recovered.

What to do about it

How can colleges address this crisis? They can’t influence the birth rate and they can’t give education away for free. Some colleges are already working to show the American public that a college education is worth the investment, but changing public opinion takes time.

One move that colleges can make, and make right now, is to shift their focus. Instead of pretending that college students are all 18-24-year-olds fresh out of high school, colleges can start marketing to the massive number of adult learners who left school for one reason or another, but are now ready to return.

Adult learners make up the largest portion of the demographic known as post-traditional students. These students are likely to be older, have families, already be in the workforce, study at night or online, and generally not fit the traditional student model.

While enrollment at four-year institutions both public and private has fallen among 18-24 year olds, students over 24 are enrolling at impressive rates. In 2018, four-year public institutions saw a 29.8% rise in enrollment by students over 24. During the same period, four-year private, non-profit institutions saw a 33.6% rise in that demographic.

Post-traditional students are the new normal at colleges across the country, but many colleges haven’t quite woken up to this fact. They’re still operating under the premise that a teenager, fresh out of high school, will attend their institution and earn a degree that will give them access to a lifelong career.

Yet, the modern world challenges almost every aspect of that model. The aftereffects of the great recession, and the continued trend toward automation is encouraging working adults to go back to school as the careers that once met their needs no longer offer enough income, stability, or flexibility.

As skills demands change, adults already in the workforce are suddenly seeing real value in returning to earn a higher credential. Others who never earned a degree are finding that getting one might just help them move up the ladder at work.

How to recruit adult learners

Attracting adult learners requires a shift in your marketing models. Adult learners have different needs and concerns, they spend time in different places online. You’ll need to adjust your tactics if you want to persuade them to pick your college. Here are four adjustments you can make to target adult learners with your marketing.

Be transparent about pricing. Adult learners tend to be more price conscious than traditional students. They may not be looking for the least expensive education, but they are looking for one that seems most likely to deliver a positive return on investment. Show them how your program will help build their network, improve their job prospects, or increase their income.

Help them make time. Many adult learners worry about how to fit education into their already busy lives. Highlighting flexible course schedules, online classes and other such offerings can help them find time for education.

Focus on those closest to you. About 68% of post-traditional undergraduate students say they prefer to be no more than 30 miles from their institution. This is true even if they’re studying online. So marketing to students in your geographical area may reap positive results.

Choose your platform. While pretty much everyone is on social media these days, people of different ages spend time in different places. While younger users are flocking to Snapchat and TikTok, users 25 and up are more likely to be found on Facebook, Instagram, and even Pinterest. Tailor your messaging on those platforms to reach adult learners.

Attracting adult learners may require a shift in more than your marketing messages. Post-traditional students are in a different place in life and have different needs. Keeping campus services open later in the day, providing childcare, or creating orientation processes that assume it’s been a while since students have set foot in a classroom can all help make these students feel welcomed by your institution.