Adult Learners: Hidden In Plain Sight

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The “traditional” 18- to 22-year-old full-time undergraduate student residing on campus represents little more than 16% of the higher education population in the United States -- fewer than 3 million of the more than 17 million students enrolled today. The vast majority of students are, in fact, adult learners. But who are they and what do they want?

The “traditional” 18- to 22-year-old full-time undergraduate student residing on campus represents little more than 16% of the higher education population in the United States – fewer than 3 million of the more than 17 million students enrolled today. The vast majority of students are, in fact, adult learners. But who are they and what do they want?

Eduventures, the leading research and consulting firm serving the education market, in its recently released report, Assessing Consumer Demand for Adult Continuing and Professional Education, identified four key consumer groups that dominate the adult continuing and professional education market. Each group has distinct motivators, program preferences, and purchasing behavior -- and understanding those factors will be increasingly critical to those developing continuing and professional education programs and marketing strategies.

Career Advancers primarily are enrolled in or interested in master’s degree programs. These consumers view a graduate degree as a ticket to career advancement, tend to choose doctoral degrees at a higher rate, and place greater importance on a convenient location near work and the availability of online courses.

Career Changers are slightly more likely to be interested in bachelor’s degrees, associate degrees, and post-baccalaureate certificates – all often entry-level credentials for new careers. This group tends to place greater importance on a program’s specialized/professional accreditation, career services, and affiliation with a professional organization.

Enrichment Seekers represent the strongest audience for individual courses, both non-credit and for-credit, unaffiliated with a degree program. A large number of enrichment seekers are primarily enrolled in or interested in master’s and bachelor’s degree programs, but at a lower rate than the other groups. Enrichment Seekers place the greatest importance on smaller class sizes.

Regulatory Compliers tend to be more interested in certificate programs and for-credit courses (i.e., shorter formats) than other types of consumers. They indicate a strong preference for continuing education units (CEUs) and professional development hours, which may not fall cleanly into the categories of a standard credential or course. This group is considerably less concerned about other criteria such as class size or student services, as well as cost or quality issues.

Sixty-eight percent of respondents cited career-related motivations as their primary motivation for pursuing continuing education. Most of these consumers are primarily interested in education to advance their careers -- with 20% seeking to improve performance in their current jobs, 18% anticipating career changes, and 11% preparing for new jobs in their current fields. An additional 16% are primarily motivated by mandated continuing education (i.e., required licensing, certification, or CEUs) in their fields.

What influences enrollment decisions:

  • In their decision-making about courses and programs among students and potential students surveyed, all ranked most highly the attributes of quality, faculty competence, convenience, and reputation.
  • Students and potential students responded to advertising terms that reflected their primary priorities, including such phrases as “quality,” “flexible scheduling,” “academic excellence,” and “affordable.”
  • Course catalogs were rated as the most important information source, followed by a collection of online information sources (e.g., school websites, web directories, search engines, email) and referral-based sources (e.g., family and friends, co-workers).

“The key takeaway here is that segmentation and differentiation -- the processes of recognizing distinct customer groups and tailoring a market position to resonate with those groups -- will become increasingly critical,” notes Eduventures Senior Analyst Sean Gallagher. “For instance, advertisements that are focused exclusively on personal enrichment may not resonate with career-oriented consumers; likewise, an overtly career-focused message may not be enough to tap the personal enrichment interests of many consumers.”

Based on survey results from more than 12,000 students and potential students drawn from 42 member institutions of Eduventures’ Learning Collaborative Program for Continuing and Professional Education, Assessing Consumer Demand for Adult Continuing and Professional Education is the first of four reports on this important topic. The remaining reports address continuing and professional education consumers’ delivery mode and formatting preferences, and satisfaction among current students, respectively. The full reports, including statistical analyses, graphics, and strategic recommendations, are available to members of the Eduventures Learning Collaborative Program for Continuing and Professional Education (CPE).

ABOUT EDUVENTURES

For more than a decade, Eduventures has been the most trusted name in the education market for research, consulting services, and peer networking. Its clients include senior administrators and executives from leading educational institutions and companies serving the K-12, higher education, and corporate learning markets, as well as decision-makers in government agencies and the investment community. For more information, visit http://www.eduventures.com.

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Steven Shapiro