Attracting and Retaining Adult Learners

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1 Attracting and Retaining Adult Learners An assessment on the state of postsecondary education opportunities for adult learners in the United States Tracy Zaiss Zaiss & Company 2012 Customer-Based Planning and Communications

2 A national priority While traditional universities see adult learners as a promising student market, there is a strong mission-related reason to serve adult learners. It is not too strong of an assertion that giving adult learners access to college-level learning is essential to our nation s continued strength. of U.S. employers say they are having difficulty finding qualified workers. 38 million adults in the U.S. have some college, but no degree. The U.S. economy is shifting to a knowledge-based economy driven by skills, talent, experience and expertise of workers and professionals. This major structural shift in the economy is creating a widening gap between the skills and experience workers have and job requirements. Even in the midst of a major recession, 61% of U.S. employers say they are having difficulty finding qualified workers. The U.S. 4-year college education attainment rate is 38% the same as it was at the end of WWII. Then we were the highest in the world. Today we lag behind most developed countries. The U.S. is the only OECD (top 30 economically developed nations) with a younger generation that has a lower level of high school graduation rates than the older generation, and we rank second to last in completion of 4-year college equivalent education. Boosting our education attainment rate significantly won t be accomplished with recent high school graduates alone. We need to open access to the 38 million adults who have started college but have not completed. The unemployment rate for those with less than a high school diploma is three times higher than the rate for those with a bachelor s degree or above (15.0% vs. 4.9%). And the gap is widening. By 2016 many of today s low-skilled jobs will simply disappear. Our nation needs a better educated workforce. Post-secondary institutions are in a good position to address this crucial issue, but they must accommodate working adults with busy work and life schedules. Zaiss & Company 1

3 Why it s important for universities While a traditional, residential experience has been a time-honored rite of passage for many, data indicate that, without an elite reputation or a very large endowment, it will be increasingly difficult to sustain viability with this group alone. -3 % The expected decrease of high school graduates through Demographics indicate there will be fewer high school graduates available. While the percent of high school graduates who enter 2- or 4-year schools is projected to stay steady at 65% to 70%, the number of students are declining through Furthermore, with median household incomes declining while the cost of college is increasing, fewer families can afford the traditional 4-year residential experience for their children. Our own research indicates that one result is that many recent high school graduates behave more like non-traditional students. That is, they are working full-time while attending school part-time. They think of themselves as adult workers who also go to school rather than students who also work. This attitude and behavioral shift has important implications for post-secondary marketing and recruiting. The financial impact is felt among most colleges and universities. Bain & Company in their 2012 study The financially sustainable university, noted that Approximately one-third of all colleges and universities have financial statements that are significantly weaker than they were several years ago. In a nutshell, they say that institutions have more liabilities, higher debt services and increasing expense without the revenue or the cash reserves to back them up. A stronger indictment, however, comes with their assertion that universities have failed to carve out a unique strategic position and, in any case, lack the discipline to focus on a core strategy if they have. Michael Horn, one of the authors of the landmark book, Disrupting Education, was more direct in a recent article in which he noted that not all universities will survive. It s clear that now is the time to embrace innovation but clarity around opportunity and strategy that leverages that innovation will be critical. Key insights into this market 88 % Number of adult learners going back to school for careerrelated reasons. Adults initiate a search for post-secondary institutions because they are seeking a credential that will help them be more competitive in the workplace. Simply put, they go back to school to earn a degree. The degree is a means to an end: A better job. But a credential can also be an award for successful completion of less time-consuming learning programs. Adults need to know they can perform in a learning environment. Many adult learners are challenged with the shift to a knowledge-based economy. They may be the first in their families to attend or graduate from college. They don t understand the terminology, and don t know the questions to ask. They don t know where to start. Post-secondary education as a product is disaggregating. In a sense it is now about delivery of three things: curriculum, faculty and credentials. These three elements are now offered independently (MIT s open courseware, Western Governor s competency-based credentials, KNext, LearningCounts, etc.). Adult students now have a broader world of options. Now more then ever, they need help navigating their options. Zaiss & Company 2

4 Recruiting success requires a strong brand position. As early as 2000, universities began to understand the foundational importance of a strong brand position. Having a clearly differentiated market position is essential for competitive advantage. This is difficult for colleges and universities, where strategic planning is accomplished through consensus of a matrixed (siloed) organization. So the process rewards inclusion of many aspects and routinely rejects focused, market-driven competitive differentiation. Furthermore, we observe the impact of a strong brand in marketing strategy on a regular basis. Universities with strong brands enjoy better lead generation results, higher conversion rates, higher click-through-rates, better user experiences and lower costs-per-enrollment. A strong brand position pays for itself in marketing. But a more compelling reason to invest in a strong brand is that failure to do so may limit growth and jeopardize sustainability. A strong marketing position answers the question, What s the main idea that makes us different? You must be able to clearly articulate that to your faculty, staff, board, alumni, students and prospective students. Adults do not access and complete college in normal time frames. They need help discerning an affordable, time-efficient path, and they could use help in creating and tracking it. According to Complete College America s landmark study of completion rates, Time is the Enemy part-time students rarely graduate. Even given twice as much time as full-time students (8 years for a bachelor s degree), fewer than 25% earn their bachelor s degrees. Adults understand that education is the key to career and job success. A large majority found the statement, 70% of new jobs that pay a family-supporting wage require education beyond high school to be a very convincing reason to pursue education. Substantial majorities agree with the statement, The future economy will be more demanding; if I don t keep skills up to date, someone will pass me by. The profile of adult learners is changing with American demographic shifts. Hispanics and Asian Americans are the fastest growing ethnic groups in the U.S. The United States has the second highest population of Hispanics of any country in the world. By 2050, projections are that Hispanics will comprise 31% of the U.S. population. Zaiss & Company 3

5 Marketing implications of these facts 1. It s critical to establish market positioning that provides a communications platform for differentiation. It needs to articulate a clear expression of the main idea that makes you different: Drive Safely When it absolutely, positively must be there on time. Real Learning for Real Life 2. With the proliferation of media channels, it is critical to build your own audience/prospect pool. Through strategic marketing and building on a sound market position, you need to generate, cultivate and mine prospect pools to serve enrollment goals. This also includes b-to-b pools like corporate partners, community college administrators and Education Service Officers. 3. It s important to develop products and services that credibly position the university and give adults access to and understanding of college. Examples include: a. Total Cost of Your Degree Calculator b. Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) c. Certificate Programs d. Credit Bank e. Financial Aid Calculator 4. It s important to engage in partnership arrangements with key channel members like community colleges and corporations so they will endorse you to their students and employees. 5. Going back to school is not a one-time transaction. It s about cultivating a lifetime relationship. Adults don t consume learning in one time-defined event. Lifetime learning is now a mandate for being successful and fulfilled. In order to successfully serve today s adults, universities need to commit to being the preferred resource for a lifetime of learning. Implications and opportunities are vast: a. Offer shorter learning programs that may or may not result in a credential. b. Create tools to capture and track progress toward degrees or relevant credentials. c. Develop incremental, career-oriented learning programs. d. Communicate and cultivate over a lifetime. e. The distinction between students and alumni is blurring. 6. In addition to measuring transactional effectiveness (i.e., how many enrollments did we achieve from X inquiries), it is also important to institute measurements that reflect long-term relationships with students and partners. a. Lifetime value of students b. Voice of the Customer listening posts c. Student loyalty to the institution (NPS) Zaiss & Company 4

6 Customer-Based Planning and Communications How Zaiss & Company can help attract, retain and serve adult learners in the 21 st Century. Zaiss & Company is a marketing planning and communications firm that partners with companies that want to strategically grow and prosper. We have a long history (23-year) of working with post-secondary education. Our track record includes significant enrollment growth (we tripled the enrollment of one institution over six years), introduction and assertion of a strong national brand for a university, and metrics-informed, customer-driven strategies. We offer these advantages: 1. We understand how adult learners think and how to motivate them. 2. We have successfully implemented marketing campaigns to key education target markets: a. Adult Learners b. Military ESO s c. Veteran s Groups d. Hispanic Americans e. Community Colleges f. Corporate Partners 3. We are experts at positioning. We have a proprietary approach to market positioning that has resulted in strong brand implementation for our clients. In order for a market position to be effective, it must meet four criteria: It must be true It must be credible It must be relevant It must be unique We deploy research to uncover the positioning statement that best meets these important criteria. The result is a statement that will form the foundation of marketing position that works for break-out growth and development. 4. We understand 21 st Century marketing communications, including: a. Social media. A recent LinkedIn promotion we created resulted in 7,452 click-throughs to a University inquiry form. b. Web development based on User-experience (UX) principles. We establish and monitor metrics for all of our websites and portals. A recent UX design update to one of our sites yielded a 10% decrease in the bounce rate and a 45% increase in both click-throughs and time spent on the site. c. marketing. Our blasts typically outperform industry averages for open rates and click-through rates. d. Web media. Our web ads have above industry rates for click-throughs. e. PPC programs f. Purchased leads g. SEO h. Web and mobile application development. We have developed online calculators to determine financial aid availability, degree path and total cost of a degree. 5. We understand the education marketing environment, including regulatory requirements and changes, and where the market is likely to go. 6. We understand marketing measurement. All of our campaigns integrate metrics so we can learn what works and improve on results. In fact, we insist on it. We understand research and have deployed VOC, NPS, competitive assessments and demand research. 7. We are mission-driven and committed to credible, productive growth. Our entire staff of 28 professionals has a long track record of successfully marketing education to adult learners. More importantly, we have a strong belief in the importance of post-secondary education to the adult learners themselves for personal fulfillment; to American corporations to aid in global competitiveness; and to our nation. Zaiss & Company 5

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