Has your college’s recruitment team been asked to focus on adult students this year? You’re not alone. In our conversations with colleges this past year, the topic of recruiting for adult students came up with nearly everyone we encountered.

According to an October 2017 report by Washington Monthly, nearly 45 percent of college students are over age 25. It’s no wonder that colleges are taking note. But are institutions ready to offer working adults the experience they want and need?

While nontraditional students are diverse in age, income, experience and aspirations, they do have some things in common in that time, cost and quality are important factors as they make choices about higher ed.Additionally, they are looking to align their credentials with their chosen career paths, and this often means not seeking a full degree, but a nondegree certificate instead.2

The bottom line? They are looking for the clearest, shortest, most efficient path to meet their higher ed goals.Below, we go into what recruitment teams need to know about the three factors to keep in mind as you interact with prospective students who fall on the nontraditional side.


It’s likely that a nontraditional student is juggling family, work and other life obligations. This means that prospective students weigh not only the time commitment of a program, but overall calendar flexibility. A single annual program start date could postpone a prospective student’s progress by a year if they have to miss it. Consider how chaotic the beginning of the school year is for a parent of school-age kids. This type of student may greatly appreciate the chance to get their kids settled into school first, before embarking on their own education goals later in October.

By offering multiple program start times throughout the year, colleges can help prospective students seize the moment in which they are most motivated and prepared to begin. Additionally, because of the other time constraints these students face, offering courses before or after typical work hours could help students from this group.

How to help: If your school offers evening or weekend courses, point that out when you are doing your marketing. Acknowledge that students might find an online program more convenient, but be sure to call out any hidden benefits in how your courses are offered, such as opportunities to interact with instructors or other students, if applicable. Listen for the student’s scheduling constraints and help them find the course options that work best for them.


To keep cost from becoming a barrier, some colleges are looking at alternative financing. Others are launching competency-based learning programs that give credit for previous learning or work experience. Either way, cost-reducing options are appreciated.

Alternative financing could involve a low-interest loan or a flat fee for a program. For instance, Fayetteville State University in North Carolina plans to offer a flat fee of no more than $10,000 for a four-year degree. Keep in mind that many nontraditional students will not qualify for financial aid as many will want to work full time and attend school part time. Therefore, a nondegree certificate program may seem more attractive. If the student’s employer or industry has been responsive to nondegree upskilling, a short-term program may meet the student’s needs.

According to a January 2018 webinar on attracting adult learners presented by Encoura, prospective students were highly focused on career advancement goals. Encoura broke down their findings by degree type sought:

Percent of survey respondents who named career advancement goals as a primary motivation for pursuing higher ed goals.

  • Certificate/noncredit course prospects: 23%
  • Undergrad prospects: 31%
  • Graduate/professional prospects: 47%

Additionally, an average of 46 percent of the respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that “Having a certificate is just as prestigious as a degree if it helps you get a job.”

How to help: Offer cost and financing information on your college’s website and make it easy to find. Respond quickly to inquiries about cost. We find that when a recruitment team responds to questions and inquiries within 24 hours, application and enrollment rates greatly improve.


In the eyes of adult prospective students, “quality” can mean anything from having a quality instructor to reducing duplication of past learning. Test-out options are appealing, especially if the student has been routinely exposed to the covered principles through years of work experience. Quality can also be perceived as good instructional design in online courses.

In terms of course modality, according to an Adult Prospect Survey Report [gated] released in 2017 by Encoura Eduventures, the research division of The National Research Center for College and University AdmissionsTM, while nontraditional students value in-person courses, the flexibility of online modalities often fit better with the student’s overall lifestyle. The survey found that 43 percent were seeking immersion and academic rigor, but 62 percent placed higher values on convenience and career goals.

Course content that strongly aligns with career advancement goals is also a form of quality, and recruitment teams should stay on top of trends in workforce demands. If you’re unsure whether your offerings are current with demand, Burning Glass tracks skills sought by employers as listed in job postings.

How to help: When a college can easily point out how its courses align with job qualifications, it’s easier for the student to justify risking their time and money to invest in their education.

The Clearest, Shortest, Most Efficient Path

Are you clearing the way to offer adult prospective students the clear, short, efficient path to advancement they seek? By keeping time, cost and quality in mind, colleges can identify barriers and areas of opportunity to help attract this group.

More on how colleges can adapt to attract adult students is available here.


[1] Lurie, Howard (2018, May 8) “Be All That You Have Been: How the Military is Innovating Education” Retrieved from https://encoura.org/military-credentialing-online/

[2] Eduventures, the research division of The National Research Center for College and University AdmissionsTM, “Adult Prospect Survey: Adult Learner Demand” Eduventures Research in Depth Report  Vol. 1 Ed. 1 (2017)

[3] Blumenstyk, Goldie (2018, Feb. 12) The Chronicle of Higher Education: “Bringing Adult Students Back Takes More Than a Catchy Campaign”