Higher Education Marketing and Advertising

Marketing to Adult Learners? Try Career Counseling.

By Sean Carton \ January 19, 2021

Memo to schools trying to attract adult learners: You’re doing it wrong.

Now before anyone reading this gets their back up and defensively starts sputtering about “the pandemic” or “changing demographics” or — gulp– “these uncertain times,” let me say this: all those things are certainly affecting your recruitment efforts, but it could be that the real problem is that prospective students can’t make the link between what you’re offering and their own career goals.


When the pandemic really began to kick in around the beginning of March 2020, the folks at Strada’s Center for Education Consumer Insights felt that they needed to do something to respond. As policy wonks and data geeks, they knew they weren’t going to be inventing a vaccine or whipping up a new form of PPE anytime soon, but they did know that using their skills to better understand what people were thinking could be a big help. As Sr. VP Dave Clayton told InsideHigherEd recently, “We took a hard look in the mirror and asked ourselves: How can we help? Obviously there’s a lot we can’t do, but we decided one of the most useful and important things we could do is provide real-time information to our unique audience of educators and policy makers.”


And that’s exactly what they did. Firing up their analytic apparatus, Strada started a weekly tracking poll of about 20,000 Americans, asking them a few simple questions about COVID-19 has changed their lives along with some questions probing their attitudes about work, education, and life in general. The result has been an ongoing project that’s revealed some fascinating insights into how people view work and education in the era of coronavirus.


You can — and definitely should — go check out the results yourself, but the one that grabbed my attention was one of the most recent reports that looked at how people viewed education as a way of advancing in their careers. Considering that a lot of the work we do here at idfive focuses on marketing to adult learners — most of whom we assume are going back to school in order to improve their career prospects — this one compelled me to dig in right away. And I’m darn glad I did. It’s an eye-opener.


As explained in this InsideHigherEd summary, the bottom line is this: Americans are increasingly feeling powerless over their careers and are increasingly skeptical about education as a tool to get ahead. It’s not that they don’t believe education is a good thing — they do — but they seem to be losing confidence that more education is going to be good for them personally. As Clayton explains, “they have a lot of hope, but not a lot of confidence.”


One of the things that Americans seem to be losing confidence in is their access to career opportunities. More than half of the respondents (52%) reported that they’ve had difficulty finding a good job or that they have little opportunity to advance in their current jobs. Almost half (46%) reported that “the system isn’t fair or that there are not opportunities for people who look like them” while the same percentage reported that their employers won’t pay for training or education. Forty-four percent attributed their career malaise to the fact that they didn’t possess the right skills or education to get where they wanted to be.


Those numbers are pretty troubling, but what’s really worrisome is that almost a third (32%) reported that they didn’t even know where to start when it came to getting a better career. 


While we in the higher ed biz typically reflexively point to education as the answer, it turns out that there’s not a lot of confidence among the public that education can help, especially for those who don’t already have a college degree. More than half of the respondents without a degree felt that additional education would only provide “some advantage” or less when it came to getting a better job and almost half of those with an Associates degree or higher felt the same way. Those are some pretty troubling numbers for anyone in the education business. As Andrew Hanson, director of research and insights for Strada’s Center for Consumer Insights, points out “The folks that need education the most also have the least confidence that it’s a solution that will really help them get where they want to go.”


For anyone trying to attract adult learners to undergraduate degree completion programs or even professional graduate programs, these findings should be a major wakeup call. After all, what’s the point of pushing “fast, flexible” programs “designed to meet the needs of working professionals” if those working professionals don’t think that those programs are worth it?


It’s not that people have completely lost faith in the ability for education to make their lives better. In a September 17, 2020 report, Strada also found that the portion of Americans without degrees who feel like education will help them meet their immediate needs has doubled since 2019. Even so, the percentage of respondents who felt that additional education will help them get a better job or is worth the cost dropped almost 20 percentage points from the previous year. Yikes.


Why the plummeting confidence? Perhaps the best indicator of the underlying reasons people are losing confidence in education comes from the fact that fewer than one in three respondents reported that they “understand available career pathways, valuable skills, and details about potential education programs ‘very well’, ” a finding echoed in the November report finding that people didn’t know where to start when it came to finding a better career.


For those of us marketing to adult learners, this lack of understanding prospective adult learners have about how to make their lives better through education is where we should be focusing our attention. If we look back at our recruitment advertising over the past decade or so — and I’ll admit my copy reflected this attitude — it seems that we’ve taken for granted that prospects understand that what we’re offering them is what they need to succeed. The “sale” has focused on the features of the programs we’re marketing but hasn’t addressed why someone should be interested in those programs to begin with. We have assumed that everyone’s made the link between “education” and “career success” when it turns out that well, maybe they haven’t. Who cares if a program is “fast” or “flexible” or “convenient” if they don’t understand why they need it in the first place? 


In the 1994 Cohen brothers movie The Hudsucker Proxy, hopeful (but clueless) business school grad Norville Barnes (played by Tim Robbins) pitches his big idea to the executives at Hudsucker Industries by showing them a circle drawn on a piece of paper, explaining breathlessly (and somewhat enigmatically) “you know…for kids!” Understandably they have no idea what he’s talking about and think he’s an idiot. However, his cluelessness plays into the hands of some of the Board members’ evil machinations and they end up letting him produce his idea, hoping that it’ll be a flop allowing them to take over the company. It turns out that it is a flop…until a kid decides to start swinging it around their hips with a swaying motion and the hula hoop craze is born.


The Strada study shows us that what we’ve been trying to sell to adult learners isn’t all that different from Norville Barnes’ attempts at marketing a plastic hoop “for kids.” Without a reason to use it — a reason that only comes from understanding how to use it –Barnes’ invention flopped. It wasn’t until other kids figured it out and passed on their knowledge to other kids that it became a hit. Could it be that much of our marketing to adult learners isn’t all that different. If they don’t have the foggiest notion how they’re going to use what we’re selling, simply holding up a program and exclaiming “You know…for adults!” ain’t going to convince too many people, especially in a time when incomes are down and job prospects are shaky at best.


But I don’t want to torture the comparison between higher ed marketing to adult learners and The Hudsucker Proxy too much. Hoping that adults are going to figure out how to benefit from the education we’re trying to sell them by watching other adults isn’t really a very sound strategy. Instead, what we ought to be doing is what Hudsucker Industries should have been doing in the first place: educating the adults we’re trying to reach about how to use the education we’re trying to sell them to advance their careers.


Rather than hope adults understand the link between completing their undergraduate degrees or earning a professional graduate degree, we need to explicitly show them the pathway to get what they want. Instead of talking about the features of our programs we need to educate adult learners about how the program will help them achieve what they want. Once they see a path forward then it’s time to tell them about how our program will fit into their lives. 


Unfortunately, career counseling doesn’t work too well within the limits of most ad copy. But it doesn’t have to. Offering career counseling as part of the admissions process is a great way to make the connection and build a relationship and it’s something that’s easily offered in a virtual format. Rather than use your website to sell the features of your program up front, why not use it to help prospects understand how your programs will help them achieve what they’re aspiring towards? It’s something that the liberal arts have had to do for a long time (we did it on our homepage we designed for the University of Maryland College of Arts and Humanities by matching careers to majors) because many parents of kids interested in majoring in philosophy or English lit had the same problem linking their kids’ education to a future career.


So stop selling features. Help people understand how education can lead them to what they want out of life. Those programs aren’t going to sell themselves.

Sean Carton
VP of Growth + Innovation
Sean Carton
VP of Growth + Innovation

Sean leads our Discover360 engagements, gathering data and research to develop the insights necessary for crafting effective strategies for our clients. He has a perfectly varied background for our higher education and nonprofit partners: He’s served as everything from a dean to an adjunct professor to the co-director of a high school cybersecurity summer camp to the leader of a university 3D printing lab. Sean also has an uncanny talent for creating the perfect meme faster than you can search for one.