Adult learners are a critical but overlooked population for higher ed. By understanding their unique needs and motivations, institutions can reshape enrollment strategies to provide customized support that empowers these highly-driven learners to balance life, work, and achieve their academic goals.
Since 2020, around 1.23 million undergraduate students have disappeared from US colleges and universities, marking a 4% decline. As we peer over the “enrollment cliff,” a decline in the number of traditional, first-year students shouldn’t necessarily spell disaster for higher education. Instead, it signals a need for a shift in perspective and strategy, opening up new avenues for reaching prospective students, namely, adult learners.
There are currently 40.4 million adult learners in the United States with some college, no credential. These non-traditional students, many of whom are struggling to balance work and family commitments, are often overlooked, under-supported, and left behind by institutions.
“If higher education is to better serve this growing population — and bolster enrollment in the process — we must start with understanding adult learners to provide the support they need for success.” ReUp CEO Terah Crews as told to Higher Ed Dive in a 2022 article.
Understanding and meeting the needs of this unique student population can play a pivotal role in shaping the future of higher education. After years’ worth of data points collected from interactions between stopout students and ReUp Success Coaches, we’ve gained key insights into how adult learners differ from traditional students.
Here are four critical learnings that colleges and universities should consider for adult learner engagement and enrollment success.
One of the most common misconceptions about college and university students who have left education is that they are incapable of or uninterested in continuing their courses. In reality, 48% of the stopped-out students that ReUp has reached out to (typically those that have taken a break two or more years ago) express an interest in returning.
While this is a considerable population, their needs and goals are largely unknown or misunderstood. ReUp’s analysis of hundreds of thousands of adult learner interactions has shown that they take a break from their studies not because they are unmotivated or incapable, but because life got in the way. With just a bit of motivation and support in balancing priorities, adult learners are willing and able to return.
ReUp Success Coaches support adult learners to successfully balance their life commitments with school and plan a pathway to degree completion. Our Success Coaches, many having been stopout students themselves, have found that adult learners need guidance towards the right strategies and resources. By capturing their desire to return and channeling it towards action and re-enrollment, ReUp has re-enrolled over tens of thousands of adult learners, with every 2 in 5 students that engage with ReUp re-enrolling.
The constantly evolving digital world — moving at warp speed since the pandemic — has given adult learners new possibilities. By shifting elements of their courses online, colleges and universities have offered adult learners the gift of flexibility to integrate education into their busy lives.
However, it’s worth noting that completely online options can disadvantage adult learners as well. These learners are more likely than the average student to lack consistent access to technology or reliable online access. A New America study reveals that adult learners listed a lack of technology or internet access as a major reason why they did not re-enroll.
An adult learner-centered enrollment strategy must consider the varying technological needs, preferences and abilities of these unique students. This could include flexible learning modalities to ensure that adult learners have equitable access to opportunities for completing their degrees, or virtual office hours for student services.
Adult learners often have more on their plate in comparison to first-time students. Today, 3.8 million learners are also parents; they represent about one-fifth of the total undergraduate student population. With such a lack of time to focus on the intricacies of the re-enrollment process, adult learners need clear, consistent, and personalized communications.
Consistency truly is key. ReUp’s data has found that an average adult learner requires over 40 communication touchpoints before deciding to attend or return to an institution. In a study of higher ed institutions receiving grants to engage adult learners, over 70% of institutions found that providing additional enrollment assistance services was key to getting prospective adult learners to enroll.
Through millions of data points about adult learners collected over the years, ReUp has built expertise on what messages resonate best with them. For example, we use messaging tailored to their circumstances, emphasizing an institution’s return on investment (ROI) or highlighting up-skilling options. We also leverage technology to manage and analyze student interactions, allowing us to constantly customize and improve our support.
(Read Selena’s story to see how ReUp’s support empowered her to balance personal commitments and return to school).
Adult learners often have a higher sense of self-direction and motivation compared to traditional, first-year learners. This is largely because they understand the relevance and value of education in achieving their goals.
“Engaged learners in our database tell ReUp that their top motivation to return is personal, or to finish what they started,” said ReUp Director of University Partnerships Dr. La’Tonya “LT” Rease Miles. “For most first-gens, earning a degree may feel like more of a personal duty, whereas peers whose parents have attended college may attend because it’s what’s expected after high school.”
Why, then, do they need customized communications and support?
These students need a partner to maintain that sense of motivation, as they struggle to balance their desire to succeed and advance in their careers with other life commitments. It’s critical for institutions to ensure enrollment success by providing the support and assistance that builds upon hard-earned traits like grit, determination, and commitment to achieving their goals.
ReUp believes that the best way to support adult learners is to take these traits into account, matching their personal motivations to path that’s right for them. ReUp’s Success Coaches provide this level of personalized support to help students commit to taking actionable steps towards achieving their biggest dreams.
Schedule a call with a ReUp team member to learn more about what a ReUp partnership could do for your institution.