Marketing tips to attract returning adult students

A few months ago, I was conducting usability research on a college site when a prospective student said something that stopped me in my tracks. After I asked her to find out how to get credit for prior learning, she replied, “Well, I wouldn’t really expect to find that on this site since this site isn’t really for me — I’m not the typical prospective college student.”

What gave me pause? She was exactly the type of student the college hoped to attract. And with a decade-long decline in enrollment, community and technical colleges can’t afford to leave any prospective students behind. 

While there are still plenty of “traditional” prospective students considering college, the average age of a community or technical college student is 28 and three out of every four American undergraduates can now be considered “non-traditional.” These “non-traditional students” are the new traditional student for your college, and they often have significant barriers to overcome as they consider college — from figuring out how to balance life, work, and school to concerns they won’t fit in at college due to their age or life experience — and your site or campaign could be inadvertently missing them altogether. 

So, let’s walk through four things we’ve learned working with dozens of colleges and universities to help make your website and marketing materials more inclusive of returning adult students and ensure everyone feels welcome at your college.  

Create needs-based website navigation

Because college websites have to communicate to so many audiences, they often rely on audience-based navigation like “High Schoolers” or “Returning Adults” to help each audience find content relevant to their needs. While this approach seems like an easy way to help users navigate through a large site and see only pertinent information, we typically don’t recommend this type of site structure to our higher education clients. Why? Most users don’t fit neatly into one category, and even when they do, their needs might not fit the category they belong to. What’s more, creating navigation labels specifically for returning adult students could send a subtle message that they’re fundamentally different from “regular” students, which could in turn reinforce perceived barriers about their ability to fit in a college environment.  

Instead, use task-oriented navigation that includes common tasks for returning adults — like finding flexible classes outside of work hours or earning credit for previous college courses. 

Make the right website and marketing copy choices 

A study in the Journal of Higher Education created four categories for how adult learners are described in academic writing: either they’re invisible, acknowledged but devalued, accepted, or embraced. One of the easiest tweaks to make your website and marketing materials more inclusive is to review your content to determine if adult learners are invisible or discounted and only the experiences of “traditional students” are treated as the norm. 

If returning adult students are invisible on your site or campaign materials, review your content and language choices to make them feel more welcome and accepted. It might be as simple as ensuring references to high school aren’t only present tense or showcasing student stories featuring older students, or it might require a more extensive rewrite. 

If you need to change your website or marketing copy to better embrace adult learners, personas are one tool you can use to help develop and review content through the lens of an adult learner. Create a returning adult student persona and read your site or campaign copy as that persona to ensure you see yourself reflected in the language used. 

Choose inclusive imagery

Imagery is a powerful and immediate way you can show returning adult students they’re welcome (and common) at your college. Make sure you show a variety of types of students on your site and in marketing materials, to give pride of place to older students. 

Using the right imagery can yield big results — a study conducted by PR News found that online content with good images get 94% more views than those without.


Give returning adults the right content and tools

Offering returning adult students the right content and tools is the best way to convince them your college is the right fit. Community and technical colleges can offer adult learners many benefits a four-year university cannot, but unless your site or marketing materials clearly convey those benefits, your prospects may be unaware of them. 

A comprehensive content strategy for returning adult students could include information about: 

  • Transferring in to the college, or obtaining college credit for work or life experiences
  • Flexible course scheduling around work or family responsibilities
  • Support for online and hybrid learning models
  • The benefits and return on investment a prospect who already has a career can expect to see in terms of advancement and salary
  • Support services like on-site childcare or technology help that can’t be matched by traditional universities

It’s also vital to consider returning adult students’ needs when developing tools and functionality for your website. Giving prospects the ability to filter programs by online-only or night classes or transfer tools that allow them to determine how their previous educational experiences can save them time and money helps them see how your college could fit into their life. 

Given the economic uncertainty due to the pandemic, the pool of adult learners considering a career change or needing to boost skills to find a new position will likely continue to grow. With the right navigation choices, language, imagery, content, and tools, you can show them they are embraced at your institution. 

Is your approach to recruiting returning adult students working? Drop us a line to discuss strategies.