How to Connect with Older Adults Returning to School

Christina Diecidue

Marketing Project Coordinator

The college experience is closely tied to the young adult years. It’s the next step after high school, a launch into the real world and a time to develop connections and build a resume. Chances are, the majority of students walking on your campus are in their late teens and early 20s, so it makes sense that your marketing efforts would be directed to them. But, is there a possibility that you are missing out on a core group of students that tend to fly under the radar but are actually more prominent than we realize?

The group we’re referring to is older adults.

Why Older Adults are Hitting the Books

Yes, even older adults can go back to college. We are never too old to learn after all, and college is a wonderful opportunity to pursue new goals, advance various skill sets and acquire hands-on experience. Though many older adults choose to go back to school willingly, others do it reluctantly. Perhaps their job landscape has changed and they need more education to stay relevant. Or maybe they want to take advantage of some of the newer positions in the company that require applicable courses.

Here are some of the most common reasons why you’ll see college applications rolling in from this age group.

  • Finish partial college education

  • Update professional skills

  • Career advancement

  • Change career paths

  • Fulfill lifelong dreams

  • Additional training

  • Achieve a better life

Despite the many reasons why older adults show up on campuses across the U.S., they do share one important factor: they need support. Colleges are primarily geared toward young adults, from the activities that are offered to the class schedules that are arranged to the messaging that is included in campus magazines and bulletins. Older students tend to feel left out since most are not enjoying the typical college experience.

Imagine being the school that supports these returning students. Just think of the impact you could make by offering support, guidance and relevant material at the right time? Information on how to balance work and family, resources to make education affordable and studies on the social and mental benefits of returning to school at a later age. It’s an entirely new group of students to tap into, and one that is desperately looking for colleges and universities to understand their unique needs.

Are There Really That Many Adults Returning to College?

Are you wondering how many older adults seek out college?

Some higher education institutions feel that it’s not worth it to market it to this age group because they account for so little of the student population. Don’t narrow your thinking, though, otherwise you’ll miss out on untapped groups of students. At one point, you may have thought the same about international students, but now look at how well-received international programs are.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population of adults 65 years and older will more than double from 40 million to 88 million between 2010 and 2050. With such a large percentage of our nation’s population being older, many issues are called into light: workforce shortages, skyrocketing healthcare costs, increasing number of retirees and a quality of life for seniors. But rather than subcumming to the negative stigmas people have of seniors, the real solution lies in appreciating the contributions that older adults can make.

The U.S. Department of Education reports that adult students are the fastest growing educational demographic, with numbers steadily increasing. A report titled Degrees of Opportunity estimates that 38 percent of the 17.6 million undergraduates enrolled in higher education in 2011 were over the age of 25.

With the growing numbers of seniors, it’s important to recognize that older students returning to school is a trend that will continue, and you want your college or university to be a part of it. It’s worth it to reach out to older students, even if they only account for a small percentage of your student body.

Understanding the Adult Student Population

One of the first questions that colleges and universities ask is how they can market to this older age group. The college experience fits with the young, after all. College is the next phase of life after high school; it’s the first stepping stone to a new career. It’s a time for students to explore their options, meet other friends and gain their independence.

Older students will already have this real-world experience. They probably won’t participate much on campus, and they certainly won’t be residing in the dorms. So what’s the best way to reach this demographic?

First, you need to understand this age group just as you do the younger students. Just because the majority of your students fall into the 18-24 age range does not mean that there aren’t differences. Your current students come from different regions and socioeconomic backgrounds. They are pursuing various careers, and some have acquired education from junior colleges. You probably segment these audiences and change your messaging based on these factors.

Take the same approach with your adult students. Learn the reasons why they are returning to school. Do they have family at home? Are they advancing their career or starting a new one? Do they need to work while they attend school? Did they receive any higher education in the past? When was the last time they set foot in a classroom?

Segmenting Adult Student Populations

As you learn about these students, you can craft messages that fit their needs. Imagine that Sally wants to further her skills and get a better job so that she can be a good role model for her children and put them through college one day. She’s tired of being a waitress, so she signs up for night classes. But, she must juggle the demands of raising a family, working and going to school. By showing Sally that your college offers flexible course times, online discussions and accelerated programs, you will capture her interest and fit her needs.

Now consider Rob, a retiree who is looking to do something rewarding with his life. He’s already fulfilled his career, and though he’s just looking for a part-time job to fill his time, he wants his skills to be fresh. Offering practical skill-building courses with daytime hours would attract Rob’s attention. To make your program more appealing, you could offer classes in a building with plenty of parking, grant access to the computer lab and launch an adult student study group.

Do you see how you can easily market to these different groups of students based on their age, experience and competing lifestyle factors (work, family, money, etc.)? You will find that the most important aspect of any higher education program for adults is flexibility. Other key factors include cost, length to graduate, online course offerings and credit for education learned through life or work experiences.

Colleges and universities that take the time to reach their adult student populations see improved enrollment. If you’re not going after this group of students, you’re missing out on an important chunk of admissions. With more older adults returning to school to advance their education, it will make all the difference to have a program that caters to this population and provides them with the comfort, diversity and accomplishment they crave. 

About the Author: Christina Diecidue

Christina Diecidue is the Marketing Project Coordinator at SEMGeeks.  She holds a B.S. in Business Administration, with concentrations in marketing, advertising, and web design from Rider University.  Known to be a meticulous worker, Christina values each client's individual goals and works to meet their digital strategy needs accordingly.  With valuable knowledge in higher education, alumni engagement, and leadership, she provides an array of skills to the SEMGeeks team.  In her free time, Christina can be found binge watching repeats of Friends and spending time with her family.

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