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Bucking tradition: Recruiting an adult or first generation college student

Providing flexible schedules and high school support for nontraditional students
University Business, August 2017
  • REMOVING ROADBLOCKS—Adult learners celebrate graduation at DePaul University in Chicago. The school has focused on simplifying the application and admissions process to accommodate “nontraditional” students.
  • NATIONAL PRESENCE—Park University in Missouri has opened satellite locations around the country, and it livestreams courses. Both efforts are to better serve nontraditional students.
  • K12 CONNECTIONS—Colorado State University partners with dozens of local high schools to better prepare students for the rigors of college work. Here, students in a summer STEM camp measure the flow of a river.

The “nontraditional” student represents perhaps the single biggest growth area for higher ed enrollment. But no single set of characteristics defines that student.

Today’s nontraditional learners have branched into two major groups—first-generation college-goers and adults long past high school graduation. Each has distinctive needs that recruiters must address when trying to bring these learners to campus.

Adult students with jobs and families want to finish as soon as possible and do their work on their own time, says Margaret Dees, senior vice president of enrollment management and communications at Jacksonville University in Florida. The institution’s accelerated, eight-week courses, compared to traditional semester-long courses, are less likely to be disrupted by an adult’s other responsibilities.


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“We start with the fundamental premise that we don’t treat adult learners as monolithic,” Dees says. “They come from a variety of different places in their lives.”

First-generation students, meanwhile, need more guidance throughout the process. DePaul University in Chicago, an institution known for first-gen success, has prioritized simplifying the application and admissions process, says David Kalsbeek, senior vice president of enrollment management and marketing.

“Small roadblocks, such as financial aid or finding academic support, can quickly become almost insurmountable when family members don’t have college experience,” Kalsbeek says.

As the growing nontraditional population seeks success in higher ed, colleges and universities are not only refining recruitment strategies but developing—and marketing—new services that ease these learners’ challenges.

Critical K12 connections

Some colleges begin supporting first-generation students as early as middle and high school. California State University San Marcos, a 28-year-old institution just north of San Diego, has signed agreements with the local school district, San Marcos USD, and several other nearby school systems that guarantee admission to students who begin meeting certain academic benchmarks starting in seventh grade.

Students must maintain a 3.0 grade-point average, take the SAT or ACT, and fill out a FAFSA, among other requirements. The university also holds an annual forum to help high school counselors and families support students’ college aspirations.

In 2016-17, first-generation students accounted for 54 percent of San Marcos’ graduating class.

“If students who don’t think of themselves as college-going know they have a spot, it’s an emotional boost that keeps them persisting,” says Erika Daniels, director of the university’s Alliance To Accelerate Excellence, which operates the K12 programs.

Colorado State University, where one-quarter of students are first-generation, offers after-school tutoring, summer instruction and even professional development in partnership with a number of local high schools and middle schools. In one program, fifth-graders participate in STEM-focused activities on campus. In another, 60 high school students live in university dorms and take summer classes.

Colorado State also sends advisors to mentor local middle and high school students.

“We know we need to increase their academic skills,” says Oscar Felix, associate vice president for diversity. “We know that some students come from high schools that are not as rigorous as schools in higher-income neighborhoods.”

Among highly selective private schools, the University Of Southern California is among the most aggressive recruiters of first-generation students. Admissions officers visit a wide range of high schools in all 50 states. It also has articulation agreements with California’s community colleges, and provides ongoing academic counseling for students who’ve indicated they want to attend USC after attaining two-year degrees.

About a third of its transfer students are first-generation. USC’s most distinctive program may be its Neighborhood Academic Initiative, which guarantees full scholarships to students from high schools in nearby, low-income communities who complete a series of college-prep classes and workshops. Some 99 percent of these enroll in college, most of them at USC.

“We’re elated no matter where they go to college—that’s what’s going to being to break the cycle of poverty,” says Tim Brunold, USC’s dean of admissions.

On a more basic level, another way to simplify the recruitment process is to give academic programs clear names. For instance, a business degree should be called business degree—not something like “organizational dynamics,” says Tom Green, associate executive director at the American Association Of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

Financial aid packets, housing information and other documents sent to students and their parents (who may not speak English well) are another area to consider. They should not be written in jargon-drenched “higher ed speak,” Green says.

“We know that many parents of first-generation students are deeply committed to getting their children into higher ed,” he says, “but they don’t know how the
system works.”

Lifelong learners

Adults rarely find photos of people who look like them when they land on the homepage of most college websites, says Laurie Shoulterkarall, who manages the Adult Learning Focused Institution Survey at the Council for Adult & Experiential Learning. Social media posts that focus on college football games and homecoming celebrations show the same tilt toward youth.

“Oftentimes, the imagery is filled with college-age young people,” Shoulterkarall says. “As an adult student coming across that, it’s less likely I will think of your institution as adult-friendly.”

Information about online and hybrid instruction, and about classes offered outside of regular business hours, should be easy to find on institutional websites. Adults are also scanning to learn if they can get credit for prior work experience.

These students want to follow the quickest pathway to a degree or certification, she says. And the costs—perhaps the most key piece of information—should enjoy prominence on an institution’s website as well.

But some colleges purposely bury the price in favor of trumpeting details of programs, says Fong, of the University Professional and Continuing Education Association. “If you’re not giving interested students the price because you just want to communicate value, you’ve lost them.”

Recruiting adults is as much about the services a college or university provides as it is about the pitch itself. Missouri’s Park University brings instruction to adult students through the Access to Education program. The private school recently announced discounted rates to all federal government employees, their spouses and their dependents.

It has similar relationships with city government agencies, such as the Austin, Texas, police department, and businesses such as Nebraska Furniture Mart.

“This is literally our business-to-business arm,” says Shane Smeed, Park’s vice president and chief operating officer. “We found a tremendous opportunity through members of our faculty and staff who have connections in the corporate and nonprofit worlds.”

Jacksonville University offers online and hybrid courses, and has not abandoned face-to-face classes because adults often want to collaborate with classmates—and they want to get out of homes where they may not have a quiet place to study, says Dees, the vice president for enrollment.

“Just because you can reach students all across the country doesn’t mean you should,” Dees says. “Even where we’re online, we try to keep it local. Your best and highest success with adult learners is going to be locally, because they know you and they trust your reputation.”

The University of Maryland University College, an online institution created to serve adults, offers courses year-round, says Erika Orris, the senior vice president for enrollment management.

“Adults want to do things very quickly in their own time, and they want a self-service process,” Orris says. “The main thing with adults is you have to let them do it the way they want. You can’t put a square peg in a round hole by making them come into do something—like forcing them to come in for an orientation they may not have time for.”

Four-year funnel

Four-year institutions can find both types of nontraditional students at community colleges. Recruiters are therefore visiting two-year campuses to recruit more frequently, and are building relationships with those institutions’ advisors, says David Hawkins, executive director for educational content and policy at the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Meanwhile, the transfer pathways that have been established between a growing number of institutions are increasingly seen as another effective way to channel nontraditional students to four-year schools.

“Four-year institutions have the academic expertise students need,” Hawkins says, “but not the funnel to get the students into their programs or the types of classroom environments and schedules that facilitate easier entry and completion of courses.”


Matt Zalaznick is senior associate editor of UB.

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