Non-Traditional Students: Tips to Attract & Retain
May 09, 2016
RuffaloNoelLevitz (RNL) recently released their 2016 Marketing and Student Recruitment Practices Benchmark Report for 4-year Colleges and Universities and it’s jammed with interesting information – but 2 points jumped off the page at us.
On page 5, they list “Five Least Effective Strategies and Tactics” and “Five Least Used Strategies and Tactics, including Promising Practices” and under 4-year public institutions was
- Targeting Adult Learners
- Targeting Part-time Students
And under 4-year private institutions, “Targeting part-time students” was listed as “least used”.
Trouble Recruiting Non-Traditional Students?
Basically, we’re talking about non-traditional students and both public and private seem to be admitting that recruiting non-traditional students is a bit of a challenge.
Yet roughly 40% of all college students are non-traditional’ according to the US Education Department. Imagine what it might be with a little tweak and improvement!
So let’s start at the beginning. Who are these people and how can you become more effective at recruiting them to you college? Let’s start off with some common, shared characteristics – we can drill down into segmentation at a later date.
- Most are employed – some working multiple jobs
- Most have dependents – a spouse, child/children
- Most are early/mid-career professionals
- Most are financially independent for the purposes of determining eligibility for financial aid
- Most are typically motivated by [a] desire to re-enter the workforce, [b] desire to change careers, and [c] desire to advance their career.
Oh, and as for age – we’re taking that out of the definition. In the past, the cut off was 24 years of age – if you were 24 or older, you were in the non-traditional segment. But today, we’re seeing a lot of 18 to 24 year olds working multiple jobs and they are financially independent for the purposes of determining eligibility for financial aid. They may or may not have dependents but they are typically in the early career and they are looking at education to advance their career.
But they aren’t living on campus and pledging a fraternity/sorority – they’re looking at college as another professional requirement that they need to meet in order to open opportunities. There’s a different mindset with this group.
Alright, let’s talk about what we have seen that works in terms of recruiting non-traditional students.
Stress Benefits That Matter To The Non-Traditional Student
Unlike traditional students that might be really excited about the new rock climbing wall being built in the student fitness center, the non-traditional student is going to be focused on other issues. Obviously this will vary – which is why it’s important to segment the non-traditional audience – but they are going to be interested in how you save them time and money as well as how your diploma is going to give them a unique edge in the job market.
For example, interest free monthly payment plans might be of great interest to some in this audience because it helps them budget. For others, having the fall/winter term end before Thanksgiving so they can focus on family and work over the Thanksgiving/New Year’s holiday breaks is extremely valuable. And for others, help with writing (tutor/writing center) is important.
Few will be interested in Homecoming Weekend, next weekend’s rave at the Student Union or the new rock climbing wall at the rec center.
Offer what they need – nights, weekends, online.
They work – and that could mean any day or time on the 24/7 continuum. They don’t need to hear “If you are hearing this message, the office is closed. Our normal hours are Monday through Friday, 9am to 4pm – except in the summer when we are closed at noon on Friday.”
And don’t assume that these are “either – or” students – meaning they will enroll in either 100% classroom courses or 100% online courses. Many will take the course they need in the most convenient modality so classroom, online, hybrid, synchronous, asynchronous…their needs may change from course to course, term to term. Offer that flexibility!
Messaging – Especially Your Website!
Non-traditional students come to your site to gather information – how easy do you make it for them to find what they want? (Do you know what they want?)
Your home page is filled with smiling 19-year olds strolling campus. Your navigation links are geared towards that audience –
- Student Life
- Campus and Community
- Apply Now
Which one is for the person that wants to come back to college and earn their undergraduate degree? Or the adult looking to pursue a graduate degree? Where do they go to find out if you have the program they want? Where do they go to find out what the tuition rate is for that program?
Some colleges have added a secondary navigation links area that includes
- Future Undergraduate Students
- Future Graduate Students
Aha! The person looking to return to college and complete that bachelor’s program is going to click on “Future Undergraduate Students” because, heck, that’s what they are!
But here’s what they will find…
- Schedule your visit
- Virtual Tour
- Campus Life
- Fitness and Activities
- Dining and Housing
- Major and Minors
Wait – hold it right there. Major and Minors.
For those that click on “Undergraduate Programs”, are they seeing “Programs” or something that indicates “Here’s what we offer!” Or are they seeing “Schedule a Tour” and “Campus Life”?
For this article, we looked at about a dozen randomly selected sites and we saw “Apply” prominently displayed but “Programs” required a little searching. On one site, “Programs” was listed 5th behind “Admission”, “Apply”, “Contact Us” and “Information Sessions” – not sure if that’s even designed for Traditional Students! Our point is this – the set up of your site might be aimed more at the traditional student so take a close look at it from the perspective of a non-traditional student!
Websites – The Fine Line Between Self-Service and “…Go Do It Yourself”
We’ve looked at close to 5,000 college websites in the past year alone. And we appreciate the belief that the website should provide the visitor with everything they need to do whatever it is they wish to do.
However, there are times when we get the sense that the site has been designed to force the visitor to do it all themselves. Phone numbers and other contact information is not prominently displayed. Names and faces of the “…faculty and staff that are dedicated to ensuring your experience at ” are missing.
For example, on one site we visited for this article, we were looking at how they present information to transfer students. The information was presented in to a bulleted list – making it clear that this is your checklist of things to do – and the first item was this link to Common Application for Transfer Applicants.
Go ahead. Click on the link. What do you see? Now imagine you are a potential student that is unfamiliar with the process. Helpful?
The non-traditional student is busy. Many don’t have the time to read your entire website so that they can find what they need to make a decision and, if they want to apply and enroll, how to apply and enroll.
They are also not involved in the education sector – so terms you take for granted mean little, if anything to them.
Make it easy for those that prefer working with you versus doing it all on their own to find you and receive your guidance and assistance in a timely manner. After all, they are looking to spend a pretty hefty amount of money at your college.
Pricing – make is simple to understand, easy to find.
First, many will go to your website to gather information on their own. (I know I said that already…but you’ll see why I repeat myself.)
Second, they are paying for their own education. They might be using savings. Or employer reimbursement. Or their own loans. But it’s their money, not Mom and Dad’s.
So where do they go when they arrive on your site and the navigation links are:
- Faculty and Staff
- Admissions (Sometimes ‘Admissions and Aid’)
- Students (Sometimes ‘Student Life’)
- Campus and Community
- Career Development
- Apply Now
- Support Us
You might know – but you work in higher ed and they don’t.
So when they have to use your “Search” function and type in “tuition” – because that’s what they’re interested in – chances are pretty good they are going to see something like “Undergraduate Tuition pop up in the first few options.
So they click on “Undergraduate Tuition” and see the full time rate you charge traditional students along with room and board…you aren’t helping them.
We did this search on a dozen randomly selected sites before writing this article and about 50% took us to the full time tuition page. The others took us to a page that was a laundry list of full time, part time, special session, summer session, in-state, out-of-state, international…oh, and the fees!!!
Keep it simple, silly! (Forgive me for being so harsh – but come on! Someone is interested in completing their BS Business at your school and they are looking at Lab Fees and Dance Fees, Applied Music Fees.)
They want simple, straight-forward answers. And they are going to your website to figure out what the program will cost so they can figure out the impact on their budget. Help ‘em out!
Remember they don’t work in higher education so write your web content so they understand it rather than in ‘financial aid speak’.
The process of applying for aid can be complicated and time-consuming, but we are here to provide assistance to guide you smoothly through the process.
Yes that’s the first paragraph of text from one of the sites we visited. And that’s not what we call “inviting” text.
That same site goes on to explain how the student should carefully read the content on this site and somewhere near the end they invite the student to “contact us with questions” but there is a link to another page for contact information!
Invite them to contact you. Yes, we know you have a lot to do and only so much time in the day so pushing potential students towards “Apply Now” and “Submit Financial Aid Forms Here” helps you – and helps some of them. But it doesn’t help all of them.
Remember that this is a major purchase for the non-traditional student and a few will self-serve – but many will want to talk to you. Encourage it. Welcome the opportunity to engage them, earn their trust and position your college as the individual’s best option. Your enrollment rates will increase – and your retention rates will see improvement too because those you assist will have a much more realistic set of expectation coming in and they will have you as their ally when assistance is needed.
Like “traditional” students with many unique segments that have unique needs, wants, expectations and perceptions, the “non-traditional” student consists of many unique segments that have unique needs, wants, expectations and perceptions.
So you need to really understand who it is you are talking with so you can provide them with the information they really need to make an informed decision.
You can’t expect a 26-year old mother of a 6-year old that has 21 credit hours left to go on her bachelors in psychology to be won over when every bit of information you share with her – online and offline – features 18 to 21-year old students at the Big Game/Homecoming or at the new Rec Center on the rock climbing wall.
Make it easy for them to find the information they need – and that includes phone numbers and email addresses for people on staff that can answer questions.
DWS Associates offers a variety of services that help colleges increase enrollments and decrease costs – especially with non-traditional students. To learn more, check our services as well as our free student recruitment self-assessment and student retention self-assessment.
Patrick McGraw is VP of Higher Educaton Marketing Services and has more than 25 years experience in market research, competitive intelligence, business intelligence including database marketing and CRM, strategic planning, brand development and management as well as operations/campaign management. His work has consistently helped his clients and employers develop and implement more efficient ways to attract and retain profitable customers, enter new markets and launch new products. His areas of focus include the education, hospitality, travel and tourism, hi-tech, telecommunications, financial services, and retail industries on both the agency and customer sides.