Reaching the Adult Learner

Posted April 26, 2016 by Mark Perna

As community colleges, technical colleges, and career and technical centers know, gaining a competitive edge in the workplace doesn’t just come with high school or even college graduation. The adult learner market is large and has great potential to grow, as a 2007 study demonstrated. The intervening years have only proven that fact as more and more adults are seeking to climb the career ladder, switch to an entirely different field, and update their existing skills (especially in rapidly changing industries such as information technology, healthcare, manufacturing, and others). So the market for adult education is out there — but how best to reach these learners?

While there is some overlap in the messages that matter to both adult learners and high school students, there are also significant differences. High school students are all about exploration, trying new things, and discovering what they’re good at. They may view CTE programs as a fun extension of their high school experience, alongside band and sports and other traditional high school activities. Adult learners, on the other hand, are often far more focused on the end goal of their educational investment. Many have work and family obligations they must juggle in order to successfully complete a career training program. So what messages resonate most strongly with your prospective adult learners?

  • Flexibility. This key message positions your programs in the realm of the possible. Evening, weekend, and online options allow them to get the training they need while managing other important responsibilities.
  • Value. The bottom line matters. Some adult learners may already have college loan debt, and all of them will be looking at the ROI, or return on investment. Is the program affordable? How does the cost compare to other training options? Can I learn and earn? What earning power will I gain with program completion? These are the questions that effective marketing will answer.
  • Quality. Closely tied to the value message is that of your programs’ quality. Are employers actively seeking your program graduates? What sets your instructors apart? Is your training equipment the same that the professionals use? Especially in markets saturated with other training options, it’s important to promote the quality skills that your programs impart.
  • Speed. “Career in a Year” and similar campaigns have been very successful in drawing in the older crowd. Accelerating their educational journey is highly appealing to those who want to get in, get skilled, and get going in a great career.

Most of all, your prospective adult learners want to know that they’re valued in a world that seems built for a traditional, linear high school → postsecondary learning → career model. They haven’t missed their window to learn; their skills and contributions are critical to the economy. They aren’t at a disadvantage for having been out of school for awhile; they bring more mature life experience and focus to their education. They’re not an afterthought; they matter to you. While these ideas may not be explicitly stated in marketing collateral, an organization that emotes a genuine warmth and value for adult learners will experience increased enrollment among this demographic.

So what are the strategies and messages you use to reach your adult learners? Let’s hear from you!

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About The Author
Mark Perna
Mark C. Perna is a best-selling author and the founder of TFS in Cleveland, Ohio, a full-service strategic consulting firm whose mission is to share and support every client's passion for making a difference.
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