Support and retain the new professional learner
The pandemic, along with changing demographics, have left many higher education institutions experiencing continued declines in their traditional student enrollments. Based on a recent report issued by the National Student Clearinghouse, enrollments have seen a two-year decline of 5% since just the fall of 2019, with the nation’s fall 2021 freshman class 9% smaller than pre-pandemic levels.
To help shore up revenues, most institutions are looking to ongoing professional development and continuing education programs and taking a very close look at how they can differentiate in a crowded marketplace. In 2021, a UPCEA Center for Research and Strategy survey indicates that 71% of higher education leaders agree or strongly agree that the development of new credentials is critical to their institution’s revenue and enrollment goals. Think about that: something that may have been a nice-to-have complement to undergraduate and graduate enrollment is now critical to higher education institutions and their revenue goals. But building the credentials is just part of the solution.
Enrollment marketing messaging and tactics must also diversify to reflect the motivators of adult learners; however, pivoting away from simply focusing on the high school to college pipeline can be overwhelming for some marketing teams. And, with inside-baseball buzzwords like micro-credentialing, digital badges, and stackable credentials, along with traditional offerings like certificates, bootcamps, and for-credit, it can be overwhelming for adult learners to decide what is best for their personal and professional goals. How can your professional development marketing efforts reach these audiences in a meaningful and effective manner?
At KW2, we’ve worked with higher education teams for decades and have identified a few priorities for marketing teams to consider as they begin expanding their efforts to the adult markets.
Both KW2 primary research and secondary research demonstrate that the pandemic is influencing enrollment and program decisions, with research by EAB showing that 34% of prospective learners indicate the pandemic has changed their plans to pursue additional education. While some prospects are now choosing to delay enrollment for a variety of reasons, this same survey shows that the pandemic has been a catalyst to accelerating the enrollment of others. For those who are accelerating their enrollment timelines, a key motivator is anxiety about current job security or employment prospects.
Knowing that anxiety about employability is a strong motivating factor in a post-pandemic world, it’s important for professional development marketing efforts to make clear connections between program learning outcomes and applicability in the job market. Adult students do not have the time nor the inclination to click through layers of websites or fill out forms to learn how a program is going to benefit their career. Make it easy for them by developing simple content across your marketing platforms that promote what skills learners can expect to gain through the program, what employers are saying about hiring professionals with those skills, and the different ways those skills can be directly applied to laddering up a career path or a degree.
According to Bryan Woodhouse, Vice President, Industry and Regional Affairs at Madison College, micro-credentialing has seen rapid growth in recent years. “The past few years we have seen tremendous growth in demand for the micro-credentialing badges both in our continuing education/professional development and degree-credit courses. I personally believe that micro-credentialing and digital badges will be a huge part of the education spectrum in the years ahead. The major micro-credentialing platforms link out to national job databases so an earner can actually use the badge to help them push forward in their career”.
-Bryan Woodhouse | Madison College
Connecting the dots between program and employment goals is a top priority in your marketing efforts, but adult learners also want to know how a program or institution is going to be a good return on their investment (time and treasure, as the saying goes). It’s not enough to simply say that your programs are generically Affordable. Learners want to know that the time and money they spend on the program are going to translate to financial security and stability. Highlighting quantifiable salary movement, title progression within an industry, and/or the ability to transfer skills to a growing job market are just a few ways to illustrate ROI more clearly for adult learners.
For those learners who may have employers investing in their professional development, it is also important to provide examples of how learning outcomes in your program may also benefit employers or an industry. A recent report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation and the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) notes that building an internal pipeline of employees with up-to-date skills, as well as developing leadership competencies and improving employee retention are just a few of the priorities employers consider when investing in tuition assistance.
Jon Kaupla, Executive Director at the Center for Professional & Executive Development at the Wisconsin School of Business believes one of the top priorities in professional development is to show ROI for both the individual and their company. “We use a variety of delivery modalities, learning experiences, and instructional approaches to ensure individuals are building the skills and knowledge they need to achieve their goals and aspirations. This, in turn, helps their organizations be more strategic and agile in the marketplace.”
-Jon Kaupla | Center for Professional & Executive Development at the Wisconsin School of Business
In that same EAB survey referenced earlier, adult learners rely heavily on digital research to learn about professional development programs, with 71% of current adult learners saying they consult the school website when searching for information about programs. With that in mind, higher education marketers should make it a top priority to assess the user experience of their websites to make sure that learners are able to get to the content they want efficiently and intuitively.
But, don’t just stop at making sure your website is accessible. It’s also important to assess the analytics of how learners are finding your program website. Identifying keywords or phrases that your website visitors are using to find you should be leveraged to strengthen and enhance your overall digital strategy. This can easily be done with some focused on-site and off-site SEO reporting. Conduct these SEO assessments once a year and benchmark over time to see where you’re succeeding and where you can improve. An additional side benefit to SEO reporting is you can get great insights as to what keywords are important to these audiences – and you can then lean on those insights in your paid search and advertising efforts.
The new professional and continuing education learners want to know that the institution they are considering understands their individual goals, will be partners with them in addressing common challenges in attending courses and working toward certificates. Adult learners’ expectations for high-touch personalization means that marketing teams need to identify all the engagement pathways a prospective learner may use to engage the institution and then build tailored content strategies for each. This is the perfect place for your customer relationship management software and marketing automation software to work in synch with each other to deliver customized content at the right time in the audience’s journey.
Providing that personalized support is paying dividends for programs being supported by the Division of Continuing Studies at University of Wisconsin-Madison. They provide a tremendous amount of support to their students. “Our professional learners are supported through personal advising and a more personalized learning experience,” says Tim Dalby, Project Program Manager. “Many of our courses are built in consultation with an instructional designer and with a diverse cohort in mind. Our program directors recognize that a well-supported and engaged student is a successful student and make time to meet with them and get to know them on a personal level to better understand their future goals.”
-Tim Dalby | Division of Continuing Studies at UW-Madison
The audience’s needs are constantly changing. In this article, we’ve provided some thought-starters on how to get to the core of what your professional learning prospects value in an institution:
As always, reach out to us if you’d like to discuss ideas on how to meet the needs of these new learners. We love digging into these challenges.