Attracting Adult Students
by George C. Dehne

Below is a table designed to demonstrate the differences between full-time undergraduate and graduate students and part-time adult undergraduate and graduate students.

Full-Time Undergraduate & Graduate Students

Part-Time Undergraduate & Graduate Students

Distinctive features of the program most important


Quality of local program most important


Career outcomes extremely important


Career advancement information most important


Require assurances that the institution wants them to enroll


Require assurances that they will succeed


Need clear marketing messages stressing the strengths of the program


Need information on what is required, how long it will take and how can they balance their competing goals


Choose a program for faculty and specialization


Choose a program for convenience and reputation


Expect hands-on learning experiences such as laboratory research or internships


Expect credit for job experience and minimal interference with their current jobs


Prepared to pay high cost for well regarded program


Prepared to pay little of own money unless an exceptional opportunity


Willing to take fundamental courses and “stop to smell the roses”


Impatient to get through program


Expect and need student services such as career counseling, housing, on-campus jobs


Expect and need few services


Want to be “courted” by institution


Want admissions process to be direct and simple


Demand attention if feel mistreated


Vote with their feet and will leave without warning


Major goal: get through and get job


Major goal: get through without sacrificing job, family and emotional health


Most Common Mistakes in Recruiting Part-time Undergraduate and Graduate Students 

Mistake 1: Capturing too little data on prospective students. We are often surprised that many adult student-recruiting programs know so little about those people who requested information regarding a program. In many cases, the admissions office collects only name and address from telephone inquirers. In some cases, the recruitment office does not even retain the names and addresses of those who requested information thus making any follow-up impossible. At the minimum, all adult recruitment offices should gain and maintain a database of the following information:

Home telephone number
Program or programs of interest
Educational background
Name of employer
Third-party payee (Does the employer pay for continued education?)
Desired enrollment date (September, January, June, etc.)
Work telephone number

This information should be requested immediately if the inquiry comes via telephone. A card requesting this information should be sent to all who write for information. A telephone call should be made to those who don’t complete and return the card. 

Mistake 2: Not pursuing inquirers long enough. In our national studies, we have found that it often takes several years for a student who first requests information about a part- time undergraduate or graduate program to actually enroll. This means many people will require regular contact reinforcing the value of pursuing a program. In some cases, this can be a simple reminder of an upcoming registration date. In other cases, a telephone call might be required. The basic fact is this, working those who request information should be courted for several years until it is clear that they will not enroll.

Mistake 3: Records are out of date. Because of the long time period between first inquiry and enrollment, there is a tendency for record keeping to get sloppy. Often graduate programs send promotional materials to students who have already enrolled or people who have actually moved from the area. Maintaining clean and up-to-date records is essential.

Mistake 4: Relying on the postal service. Effective recruitment of adult students requires an aggressive telemarketing program.  We have found that a telephone call can be far more effective than mail in reassuring an inquirer that they “belong” in a specific program.

Many adults returning to higher education are apprehensive about their current abilities and usually have several questions that are easy to answer. Unfortunately, too few institutions make this process easy. Instead of asking a busy working person to come to campus, give them a call. The high tuition revenue generated by part-time students makes the telemarketing a cost-effective tool.

Mistake 5: Selling too hard. Providing advising is far more effective than a hard sell.    Key to recruiting part-time students is thoroughly informing them of the time it will take to complete the program, ways of earning academic credit through testing or life experience, the transferability of the credits they may have earned elsewhere, and reassurance that they can succeed. In other words, counseling prospective students is critical. If a prospective student will not come to the office for counseling, telemarketers should be trained to provide academic counseling and provide registration over the phone. Part-time students will not be fooled by slick publications and well-honed messages. They want to know what it will take to get in, what will they get out of it, how long will it take and will any credits transfer or life experiences be counted.

Mistake 6: Targeting too broadly. Just as is the case with traditional undergraduate recruitment, much of non-traditional-age student recruitment depends on word of mouth. Current and past students are a program’s best sales people. Employer support is also important. On the other hand, television, radio and newspaper are costly and generally have limited impact. If you feel you must use the mass media, then target narrowly. For example, advertise in towns and regions where the incomes are above $40,000 and a large percent of the residents have some college (targets for degree completion) or bachelor’s degrees (targets for graduate programs). 

General Recommendations for Recruiting Part-time Students

In our surveys of men and women considering a part-time program, we have learned what factors are most likely to positively impact a decision to enroll.

Target locally. In all our research, a large percentage of respondents said programs near their home or near their place of work might motivate them to enroll. Based on this information the three most important natural markets for part-time students are 1) those who live in the vicinity of the campus, 2) those who work near the campus or 3) those who travel near the campus on their way to and from their place of work.

There are several steps to targeting locally:

  1. Learn about the various residential neighborhoods and businesses within the areas.

  2. Review the traffic pattern of the major arteries near your campus. Try to determine who travels near your campus on their way to and from work and learn where they are going.

  3. Be certain that all advertising shows how convenient your institution is to major arteries.

  4. Determine the best way to get information on your part-time graduate programs posted in local businesses.

  5. Offer “neighborhood scholarships” to prime the pump. The Small Town Scholarship would be a modest reduction in fees for residents in a specific small town. Target only areas with the most productive demographics.

Develop Flexible Programming. Most institutions can carve out a relatively nice piece of the part-time graduate student pie if they offer a few popular, but also truly flexible, programs for part-time graduate students. By flexible we mean a program where students can choose from day, evening, and weekend courses. In our studies, more than one of two respondents in all areas said a combination of day and evening would greatly increase their interest in attending. By keeping the number of programs limited, maintaining a flexible program would not be as difficult as trying to offer all programs on a flexible basis. For example, only “core” courses required in several programs would be offered on the weekend.

Focus on the Fall. Fall is the time when non-traditional students and graduate students think about returning for course work. While the fall and winter were the most popular combination, in our studies fall is the preferred single season. This suggests that the strategy should be to place the greatest emphasis on advertising and promotion in the late summer for fall enrollment. Then place the emphasis on internal promotion and, perhaps, discounting to encourage those who start in the fall to stay throughout the year.  

We are not implying that no advertising be done at other times of the year, but the fall should be the time of greatest interest.

The surprising low interest in spring and summer to take classes suggests that an institution consider one of two possibilities:

Be More Generous with Credit. We know this will be a controversial recommendation at any campus, but we known an institution can be a force to be reckoned with if it offers undergraduate or graduate credit for work experience or encourages credit by examination. A vast majority of respondents in all our studies say they would be motivated by “academic credit for what you have learned in your job” and “academic credit for experiences in your life.”

Work with Employers. Not surprisingly in our surveys, it is clear that encouragement from employers and especially help with tuition is a major motivator. Getting employers to take your institution seriously as an “undergraduate or graduate program vendor” is, therefore, critical. Below we suggest ways to get started.

Establish an advisory group. The human resource managers at the largest employers within your institution’s sphere and owners of more modest enterprises should be asked to join a professional advisory panel. Their role would be to advise on course and program offerings at the graduate level in all appropriate fields, suggest marketing strategies, and help promote the programs of your institution. 


Survey area employers. With the help of the advisory panel develop a survey of all employers in the area concerning needs, tuition benefits and so forth. Ask the “heavies” on the panel to be point people. That is, send the survey over their signatures.


Take courses to the employers. If an employer is interested, take courses and programs to their site rather than expect students to come to your institution.


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