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Adult learners can’t be lumped into a one-size-fits-all category, according to Leanne Davis, assistant director of applied research at the Institute for Higher Education Policy.

That’s why Lipman Hearne, a Chicago-based marketing firm with a focus on higher education and enrollment, surveyed adult learners and created four “personas” to better understand them.

Kirsten Fedderke, senior vice president and account director at the firm, said while much of what they found in the survey matches common assumptions about adult learners, some data point to nuances of the population that are often ignored.

For example, while respondents said their top reason for enrolling in college was to have a good job, the next three reasons were more emotional, like “be confident and prepared for life” and “be well-rounded and professionally responsible.”

“We were also surprised by the positive nature of the emotions,” said Suzanne Grigalunas, Lipman Hearne's enrollment marketing specialist. “When you look at the marketing materials out there, it addresses the anxiety and fear, and students are excited.”

Four Personas of Adult Learners

Reinventors: Interested in prestige, are exploring several career options, want part-time programs that are mostly online

Scholars: Interested in the traditional academic experience, very certain of their career path, want full-time and on-campus programs

Change makers: Interested in customizing their education, want emotional benefits, uninterested in prestige

Seekers: Interested in a pathway to a job, want emotional benefits, more likely to feel stressed

Adult learners make up about 27 percent of the nation's undergraduate student population. As enrollment continues to decline overall, and the U.S. population skews older, some argue that institutions will have to attract adult learners to survive.

“Re-engaging adult students is not low-hanging fruit, but it is definitely something that we need to be able to do if we want to meet workforce demands,” Davis said. “Basically, we just need to be able to rethink delivering higher education.”

Most institutions are set up for “traditional students” -- those ages 18 to 24. Recruiting 18-year-olds, however, is much different from recruiting adults, said Marie Cini, president of the nonprofit Council for Adult and Experiential Learning.

Lipman Hearne received 1,006 responses to its 2019 survey of people ages 25 to 54 with a high school diploma or associate’s degree but no four-year degree. Those surveyed were at least considering working toward a degree in the next few years, and some already had credits or were enrolled in a two-year program.

Most respondents were employed full-time and lived in suburbs or cities. More than half were married or have families.

Over all, the survey found that the price and flexibility of programs must be communicated early on. Adult learners who took the survey were also concerned about fitting in and wanted credit for the experience they gained while working. A good portion also were interested in programs that weren’t solely online.

A large number -- 82 percent -- also said they wanted to enroll at the most affordable place that admits them. Beyond that, though, those surveyed said they'd pay more over all for a degree if the annual cost was lower.

“It is important to know who you’re targeting, because not all adult learners are the same,” said Cini.

Using the four personas -- the reinventors, scholars, change makers and seekers -- Fedderke said institutions could identify what types of students would be a good fit, and then target them using information from the personas.

“At a high level, it helps put a face to audience that I think is often thought of as very monolithic,” she said.

Carolyn Hebert, director of marketing and public relations at the public, online Charter Oak State College in Connecticut, said marketing teams need to go beyond segmentation.

“The more we can define things like mind-set for segments of the population, the better marketing experience we can deliver -- however, it doesn’t go far enough,” Hebert said in an email. “We are beginning to see tech platforms using AI that provide higher ed institutions with the ability to leverage data from different sources in real time to allow us to deliver a highly customized communications experience to each individual.”

Grigalunas agrees that hyperpersonalization is necessary, but she said that personas can serve as frameworks for future planning.

Lipman Hearne surveyed the landscape for similar marketing reports and found that the application of personas was missing, Grigalunas said. Their report also digs into the mind-sets of adult learners and their emotional drivers.

“As demographics are changing, it’s needed by the institutions to really think more broadly about who their prospective student really is,” Fedderke said, noting that few established pipelines exist to get students into higher education once they fall outside of the “traditional recruitment funnel.”

Few institutions were talking to adult learners in a “way that made sense to them,” she said, so it’s important to take another look at marketing.

Cini agreed that segmenting different characteristics into personas would be helpful to better target messages from colleges.

However, she said the issue is “more complex than that.”

“Just marketing isn’t going to bring more adults in,” she said. Institutions need to look at what they’re offering and how it’s offered, as well. This information could help inform institutions of what those target markets are looking for so they can design programs.

Davis made a similar argument and said she hopes institutions would think beyond marketing when looking at this report.

“It’s great marketing points,” she said, “but how can you redesign supports?”

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