Career-focused adults represent a promising market for higher ed institutions faced with declining enrollment from traditional students. Yet, enrolling in an academic program can be a daunting task for adult learners who are often juggling multiple responsibilities and navigating complex life circumstances.

To ensure adult learners include your institution in their consideration set, it’s crucial to streamline enrollment processes and remove barriers. It’s equally important to recognize the barriers adult learners face may be different from those of traditional students.

In this blog post, we’ll explore some best practices for simplifying enrollment procedures and making them more user-friendly for adult learners.

Remove barriers to entry

Provide clear and transparent information

Adult learners need clear and easily accessible information about admission requirements, program offerings, tuition costs, financial aid options, and deadlines. They are less likely to consider institutions with difficult-to-find or vague information. They prefer institutions that provide relevant information upfront to help them make informed decisions about their academic pursuits. Institutions can give themselves an advantage with adult learners by optimizing their site for navigability and user experience.

Consider removing application fees

Institutions often charge a nominal application fee, thinking that it demonstrates the applicant is serious about wanting to attend the institution. But paying the fee can be a cumbersome process, requiring the use of systems unfamiliar to adult learners and presenting just one more barrier in the enrollment journey.

Consider removing entrance exams

Many schools are rethinking the value of standardized test requirements for adult learners, such as the SAT, ACT, GRE, and GMAT. Their rationale is that standardized tests don’t accurately measure student learning and performance-based assessment is more equitable, accurate, and engaging.

Alternatively, if requiring standardized test scores, offer preparatory resources or remedial coursework to support adult learners in meeting academic readiness standards.

Reconsider transcript requirement (unless necessary)

Adult learners often have attended multiple institutions, sometimes many years ago. Requesting transcripts from multiple institutions can be a significant barrier to enrollment.

For applicants to master’s programs, consider limiting transcript requirement to the institution conferring the bachelor’s degree. For bachelor’s students, consider offering to retrieve transcripts on behalf of the student.

Rethink the enrollment process

Offer flexible enrollment deadlines

Rolling admissions or multiple enrollment periods throughout the year can accommodate the varying schedules and timelines of adult learners. Avoid requiring newly admitted learners to wait months to start their program of study. Avoid rigid deadlines for admission materials, recognizing that adults have many competing priorities and often miss deadlines due to other important commitments.

Implement a prior learning assessment for adults

Acknowledge the value of life experiences for adult learners by implementing a robust and transparent system for evaluating and granting credit for prior learning, including work experience, military service, and non-credit coursework. Recognizing and valuing the knowledge and skills that adult learners bring to the table can accelerate their progress toward degree completion while reducing duplication of effort.

Streamline transfer credit evaluation for adults

Simplify the process for evaluating and transferring credits from prior college coursework or other accredited institutions. Provide clear guidelines and resources for submitting transcripts and ensure timely evaluation and recognition of transferable credits.

This helps adult learners avoid unnecessary repetition of coursework and expedites their academic progress. Consider accepting the most recent transcript to conduct an unofficial transfer credit evaluation.

Ensure meaningful application requirements

Application requirements should only include information used to make admission decisions. Applicants are often required to submit reference letters, resumes, or personal statements. However, using these materials for evaluating admittance is often inconsistent and not driven by objective criteria, opening the possibility of bias in the decisioning process.

Additionally, analyzing how often these items lead to declining an applicant may uncover opportunities for process improvement. Often, institutions find a very small percentage of applicants are denied admission based on these admission materials.

Provide extra support and communications

Personalize guidance and support

Offer personalized guidance and ready access to support throughout the adult learner enrollment process. Assign dedicated enrollment advisors or counselors who can assist them with navigating the application process, interpreting program requirements, calculating total program costs, and understanding how the program specifically supports them.

Having a point of contact who can address their questions and concerns in a timely manner can significantly reduce anxiety and confusion and help prospective students move through the enrollment process.

Make technology accessible and user-friendly

Ensure that online enrollment systems and platforms are intuitive, accessible, and user-friendly. Conduct testing with adult learners to identify and address any usability issues or barriers to navigation.

Provide clear instructions and guidance for using the online application portal, and offer timely, first-resolution-focused technical support outside of normal business hours for those who encounter difficulties.

Offer financial aid assistance

Provide comprehensive support and guidance for navigating the financial aid process, including assistance with completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and applying for scholarships or grants. Offer workshops, webinars, or one-on-one sessions to help adult learners understand their options and maximize available funding opportunities.

Solicit feedback for continuous improvement

Actively seek feedback from adult learners about their higher education enrollment experiences and use that input to improve and streamline the process. Conduct regular evaluations of enrollment procedures and make adjustments as needed to better meet the needs of adult learners.

Roll out the welcome mat for adult learners

Breaking down barriers to enrollment benefits individual adult learners and contributes to the academic community’s diversity and vibrancy.

By implementing these best practices, higher education institutions can create a more inclusive and welcoming environment for adult learners, increasing enrollment rates and expanding access to educational opportunities for this important demographic.

Author: Tracy Chapman, PhD

Tracy Chapman, PhD., serves as Collegis’s Chief Academic Officer. Chapman’s 20+ years in academia includes leadership, scholarship, and innovative approaches to reaching students. Prior to joining Collegis, Chapman served as the dean of the School for Professional Studies and associate provost for Distance Education at Saint Louis University, and led Creighton University’s Center for Academic Innovation.