Effective Marketing Tactics to Increase Enrollment for Nontraditional Students

Posted: November 17, 2022

Here at VisionPoint, we greatly value the contributions of our interns to the work we do each and every day. This fall, we challenged our current intern class to create EduInsights articles based on their research and learnings throughout the internship.

Their topic, “Effective Marketing Tactics to Increase Enrollment for Nontraditional Students,” lines up well with one of VisionPoint’s key focuses throughout 2022 in finding unique ways to reach niche audiences, including our recent article on the current enrollment marketing landscape. We hope you enjoy!

Current State

In today’s marketing world, higher ed institutions advertise and promote their universities and offerings toward various market segments. Even though a major proportion of college applications and enrollment comes from the traditional undergraduate student group – ages 18 to 24 – colleges and universities should shift their focus towards finding ways to attract nontraditional students – ages 24 and up – to further grow their enrollment numbers.

But why? Long answer short, nontraditional learners are willing to put more time and resources into learning, as their motivation is more focused compared to that of a traditional learner. Nontraditional students pursue higher education for career advancement or even a career shift to gain the educational background to pursue their passion. These learners have real-world experience and have learned exactly what they want out of their careers. From a traditional learner perspective, we’re usually externally – thanks, Mom! – and internally – everyone else is doing it! – pressured to continue education. As a result, many of us are not as dedicated to higher education as a nontraditional learner would be.

When the Covid-19 pandemic caused educational institutions to shut down in 2020, enrollment rates fell by 9.5% across all age groups. However, it is important to note the very recognizable 36.6% increase in enrollment at private non-profit institutions (Image 1) – institutions that offer programs and certifications for trade professions – showcasing an influx of recent high school graduates and adults looking for a quicker way to change careers and obtain a higher salary in comparison to the more traditional four-year route.

Courtesy of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center

But what led to this shift? During the early days of the pandemic, we believe that priorities shifted from education to safety of oneself, one’s family, and saving money in the case of a medical emergency. The outcome of this paradigm shift led to many new high school graduates not enrolling in higher education and thousands of adults leaving the workforce to take care of their children – either retiring early or losing their jobs.

On the upside, a great deal of companies shifted temporarily to remote work, allowing a more flexible and convenient schedule for their employees. This shift in working styles allowed many employees to start up new chapters in their higher education journeys.

Now that infection rates are decreasing and vaccinations are making people more comfortable – work is moving back to the office (while some jobs are staying online), and employment schedules are shifting again, reducing flexibility for distance education programs – adults and nontraditional learners need to make an important decision: continue their education or return to work. Higher ed institutions must now devise new marketing techniques to shift adult learner perspectives and incentivize them to choose education.

A Shift from Traditional to Nontraditional

Studying learner segmentations can give us more insight into how to attract nontraditional students. The ‘why’ behind each student’s decision to choose a particular institution is vital information as “it’s one thing for an institution to [identify new pools of prospects] to meet the growing demand for ‘lifelong learning’ – and quite another to [understand what different learners (Image 2) want and which groups of learners an institution is best positioned to serve (Image 3) in consistency with its mission]” (Inside HigherEd).

In short, an institution should focus not only on reaching the growing demand of “lifelong learning” but also on understanding how to attract and differentiate segments of learners, and then maximize on that information.

Courtesy of Inside Higher Ed
Courtesy of Inside Higher Ed

By looking at the images and the survey conducted above, we can see that flexibility, cost, and relevance to career advancement are driving factors when Mid-Career Climbers and Trajectory Transformers decide which programs to pursue.

These two learner segments are often faced with challenges, such as work and family obligations, financial barriers, and additional life stressors. Having resources that highlight tuition assistance and career guidance would be ideal when trying to attract these learners. Displaying that your institution knows how to cater to nontraditional learners with resources, and anticipating their needs, goes a long way.

It’s also important to note that not all adult learners are the same, and it’s important to keep this in mind when creating marketing campaigns. Sara Pelletier, a digital marketing specialist here at VisionPoint Marketing stated: “We are seeing lots of enrollment growth with working professionals and caregivers. We need to give them the agency to go back because a lot of the time, when you’re a caregiver, you feel like you can’t since you feel the need to focus on others. So, giving them the agency to say ‘Yes, I can go back and yes I can do this’ is important.”

There will need to be different targeting methods to attract the different segmentations. Nontraditional students often do not have the same enthusiasm about going back to college as a traditional student, so it is important to ensure that your marketing tactics create an encouraging and welcoming environment. Some effective concepts that you could represent in your campaigns to make nontraditional students feel more secure about enrolling in your program include:

  • Break down total costs of the program as well as possible financial aid assistance.
  • Offer multiple ways for prospective students to engage.
  • Emphasize return on investment.
  • Avoid typical images of students in class, and include pictures of projected careers.
  • Show flexibility in class formats, including weekend, online, and night courses.
  • And, most importantly, re-evaluate the value your offers provide to nontraditional students.

Retaining the Newly Attained Market

Working adults need to be certain that the money they’re spending for a degree is worth it. If they’re already being paid a good amount, why would they need a degree? It’s important for higher ed institutions to be as accommodating and as direct as possible when advertising programs to nontraditional learners, as they are much more likely to be discouraged from attending an institution where they can’t find crucial decision-making information.

VisionPoint has partnered up with higher ed institutions to generate new campaigns and approaches directed towards nontraditional students. For the University of North Carolina System, we devised a statewide financial aid campaign specifically targeting nontraditional learners across economically distressed communities in support of their reduced tuition initiative, NC Promise. This gave the system unprecedented visibility, and our campaign produced a total 46,979,414 impressions, 113,260 clicks, and an efficient 7.71% click-through rate at an eighth of the cost of the industry average. The commercials produced for the campaign won two silver ADDYs from our regional American Advertising Awards, pushing the recognition across the higher education landscape even higher.

Our work with the UNC System garnered unprecedented visibility statewide.

In our work for the University of Arkansas, we scaled a university-wide campaign message to a wide range of online programs for nontraditional adult learners. Our campaign not only drove scores of leads and accelerated their positive enrollment forecast but also cemented a stronger long-term position for public universities in the hypercompetitive online program marketplace. We also did the same for the College of DuPage, creating a new position for accelerated learning courses and job-ready skill certificates with online course flexibility, establishing value in nontraditional learners.

From our variety of work and case studies, we are aware that nontraditional learners from underserved minority populations have become a major audience with the focus shifting toward affordable, nontraditional degree and certificate programs that yield more direct, career-based outcomes.

Work With Us

VisionPoint Marketing has worked in the higher education enrollment marketing industry for 21 years. Our team of experts work with our client partners to increase enrollment of adult learners.

Contact our Vice President Dana Cruikshank for a free consultation call.

Written by Omry Brewster (analytics intern), Vanessa Dao (traditional media intern), Cuauhtemoc Dominguez (project management intern), and Aaryan Sharma (business development intern).