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Reaching Non-Traditional Students

There's a new wrinkle in college marketing.
University Business, Sep 2006

If you have recently taken a look at the faces of the students on your campus, you have probably noticed that they are looking older than they used to. That's because the fastest growing segment of the higher education market is reported to be non-traditional working adults.

In fact, since this group now makes up more than 50 percent of the postsecondary student population, they are an essential consideration for curriculum design, enrollment, and marketing efforts.

The standard definition of non-traditional students is working adults, 24 years old or older, who are pursuing part-time, postsecondary school education. They may never have pursued education past high school; they may have accumulated some college credits with no degree; or they may be mid-career graduates looking for a change.

They have different reasons for wanting to complete their degrees, but most either want to achieve a personal goal, or advance their careers. This creates a pretty wide potential universe of non-traditional prospects for college and graduate-level programs.

So, assuming that your institution offers the course options and flexibility to accommodate the basic needs of the non-traditional student, how do you recruit this population? Just as not every "traditional" candidate is a good candidate for your program, not every non-traditional student is a good prospect for your institution either.

Since the students are older and perhaps quite distanced from their last classroom experience, it only makes sense that there are other factors beside GPAs and College Boards that predict success. And it also makes sense that the type of outreach to these students needs to be thought out as well. Here are a few guidelines to start with:

Successful marketing will start with market segmentation. Start with an analysis of what student profiles will be most likely to succeed in your program.

Professional experience: Does a certain professional background or certification create a predisposition for advancement? For example, paramedics and LPNs may be prime candidates for a non-traditional nursing school program; vet techs and assistants may be key prospects for a veterinary program.

College experience: How much, if any, college credit should the student have coming into the program? For example, there may be a threshold under which non-traditional education loses timing or cost advantage.

Full-time versus part-time working status: For example, if tuition assistance is unlikely for a particular degree program, it may make sense to prioritize outreach to full-time employees who may better afford continuing education than part-time workers. In other words, household income could play a large role in the non-traditional student's viability.

Geographic radius for recruitment: If your non-traditional program is campus based, candidates will probably not want to commute more than 30 minutes. It also makes sense to have an understanding of the employer profile for your non-traditional prospects. These business entities could become important targets or even partners in your outreach program.

SIC codes: What are the business concentrations of your non-traditional students? What are the SICs of the major employers in your metro area?

HR/benefits: Are the probable employers, e.g., hospitals and major health systems, likely to have tuition assistance programs,?

Company size: What is the average size of employers that are most likely to have tuition assistance programs?

OK, so now you can picture them. But can they picture you?

While your institution may have years of experience defining its brand and mission to traditional students, that message may need to be articulated differently to a population that's largely in a different place in life and may have different values. They may place a higher premium on real-life experience than traditional academic excellence. You need to uncover and communicate the facets of your brand that relate to your prospective non-traditional students.

You also need to know how to define your college environment in a manner that appeals to the non-traditional student's needs. Even though they are not attending college in the traditional sense, the desire to know how they will "fit in" and "get along" persists for all students. So, while images of hanging out at the student union may no longer excite them, special chat rooms, blogs, and interactive web seminars may meet their current needs for socialization and interactivity.

If you know who you are, and you have identified a match with who they are, it's time to reach out.

Develop your list or house database of target contacts that fit your key student profiles.

Identify the media through which you can convey your institution's message directly to your most "likely to succeed" populations. This list might include direct marketing, business and professional magazines, and other alternate channels, such as job fairs and on-site HR materials..

Create your message and deliver it through a plan that considers frequency, response, and follow up through application and enrollment.

It's important to remember that non-traditional students often have a lot more on their plates than traditional students. They are likely to have much higher-level job responsibilities and stress, as well as increased responsibilities to their families and communities. This gives them more opportunities to procrastinate, to be intimidated by the process, or to be distracted from taking that next step to apply. It's up to you to let them know they are wanted at your college and that they can achieve success in their goals with you as well.

It is critical to be prompt and persistent with follow-up. The more personal, the better.

If your college has the resources, personal follow-up by phone provides an opportunity to further qualify the student prospect as well as overcome potential obstacles to application.

Sequential, personalized e-mails can be used effectively to build the case and the urgency for application. They can also prompt immediate response to apply online.

Direct mail, especially a personalized letter, can also be employed to communicate encouragement, reinforce the "fit" and deliver sincere expression of how much the prospect is wanted by your college.

Then, of course, upon application and enrollment, you must fulfill the commitments you have made to the non-traditional student experience.

Media Logic developed a program that followed these guidelines for Ross University (N.J.), an affiliate of DeVry University (Pa.), which offered degree programs in medicine and veterinary science. After years of recruiting traditional students just graduating from college, it was determined that the university could have a large appeal to potential non-traditional students recruited from careers related to medical and veterinary service. The target audience was comprised of older, working adults, often serving in an ancillary capacity to doctors and veterinarians. They typically were chiropractors and physician's assistants, or vet techs and assistants to veterinarians.

A lead generation program was developed that:

Identified key job titles for working adults most likely to be interested in advancement within their field, as well as likely to be successful in the school program.

Created a database of targeted prospects. Employers of the key job titles were also targeted with messages urging them to encourage their reports to take the next step in career advancement.

Sent an engaging direct mail series that invited attendance to informational seminars about the university; the mailings delivered the message that Ross University was just the place for recipients to take their careers to the next level.

Placed print ads in business and professional magazines with a high target circulation to the designated job titles.

The response was fast and dramatically positive. Attendance of mid-career prospects at Ross University's seminars increased by 25 percent compared to the same time in previous years. Enrollment of students embarking on their second careers increased by 13 percent compared to the same time in previous years.

The program was also attributed for positive impact on applications for the following semester, which were at least 15 percent higher than the same time in previous years.

Phyllis Niner has 20 years of integrated-marketing service and account-management experience in higher education and business-to-business market segments. She is a senior account supervisor at Media Logic (

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