How to reach adult students? For starters, talk to them like adults
Research and Evaluation

How to reach adult students? For starters, talk to them like adults

Black, female student in COVID mask talking with a fellow student, and holding a notepad.

How can colleges and universities reach and engage adult learners, who are quickly becoming a larger part of their student populations? The answer is: much differently than they did traditional students.

To date, 45 states have set college attainment goals, and adult students are key to reaching those goals. So understanding the needs of adults and how they differ from students right out of high school is essential.

Today, we have some fresh insights. A newly released Mathematica study draws on data from its four-year evaluation of the Adult Promise programs. These programs, supported by Lumina Foundation and underway in 15 states, offer enhanced financial and other supports for adult students who want to keep learning and increasing their earning power.

The study describes how states and insti­tutions are reaching, engaging, and enrolling adults through unique approaches that include targeted marketing, outreach, and enrollment strategies. Three strategies are especially effective: (1) tailored messages, (2) tech-based tools, and (3) high-touch helpers. Here are a few key takeaways from the study regarding each strategy:

  • Tailored Messages: Most messages to adult students began with focus groups and included the voices of those learners themselves. Adult Promise states found success in messages that highlighted long-term career benefits and addressed concerns over balancing work and family demands while in school. Messages that emphasized student support, such as childcare assistance and flexible course offerings, were well received. States used slogans that were short, catchy, uplifting, and targeted specifically to adult students’ goals. Oklahoma focused on the experience that older students bring with its slogan, “Show What You Know,” while Ohio stressed the future benefits of a degree with “Finish for Your Future.” About 80 percent of the institutions surveyed said they now tailor their outreach to adult learners.
  • Tech-Based Tools: States developed a variety of tech-based tools to engage prospective adult learners and simplify enrollment. Several states created comprehensive online portals that serve as a virtual clearinghouse that helps students choose programs, get enrolled, find financial aid, and even apply for credits for prior learning. Some states, such as Indiana, went further by setting up the “Next Level Jobs” tool that guides students to free training programs in high-demand fields based on their location and career interests.
  • High-Touch Helpers: While high-tech tools help streamline processes, adult learners tend to lean on family and friends when considering a return to school. So Adult Promise states built personal connections: Maine set up a statewide network of hundreds of education and training specialists to guide adults, while Minnesota trained a small cohort of institution-based navigators to help with everything from enrollment to unemployment benefits. Others offered family-friendly recruitment fairs. More than 70 percent of Adult Promise schools surveyed said that providing navigation assistance was one of the most effective ways to get adults to enroll, and that adult students need at least 15 to 30 “touches” or contacts before enrolling.

These new approaches are gaining traction with adult students – but there’s still far to go. We are working to ensure that, by 2025, 60 percent of Americans hold a quality credential beyond high school. Today, that number is just shy of 52 percent. By building on these valuable insights, we can help many more adults learn, earn, and thrive.


Wendy Sedlak, Ph.D., is the strategy director for research and evaluation at Lumina Foundation, a private, independent foundation committed to racial equity and to helping everyone learn beyond high school. Sedlak advises Lumina’s strategic direction, guides effective practices, and measures the foundation’s progress. Learn more about Mathematica’s ongoing evaluation of the Adult Promise programs.

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