The Higher Ed Marketing Approach to the Nontraditional Student

By Mike StaffordMarch 13, 2017

The term “nontraditional student” has officially become a misnomer. The characteristics used to describe this group reflect the majority of undergraduates seen in today’s classroom. In fact, 74 percent now hold at least one nontraditional quality. And it’s something higher education leaders and marketers need to consider when developing admissions requirements, recruiting tools, online portals for inquiry generation, and more.

The Nontraditional Driving Forces
To best understand this student population, it’s important to know what initially sparked nontraditional growth. For one, there’s the “skills gap,” or a current phenomenon where employee skill levels are no longer matching up with the highly skilled work now available. As a result, adults are returning to school — and some employers are even sending them. Other causes include the Great Recession and its lingering effects. During the mid-2000 era, there were spikes of adult and part-time enrollments – perhaps due to frequent layoffs and a struggling job market. Many took this time to gain new skills or switch careers.

Nontraditional Student Demographics
While these are some common drivers, nontraditional students are an incredibly diverse group. There is no one-size-all-fits-all student. Some want to continue their education. Others are delayed starters. Some want a four-year diploma. Others are seeking a certificate.

When looking at the data, however, we can draw some high-level conclusions. Most nontraditional students are working: 62 percent have a part-time or full-time job. This means they will likely seek more flexibility. Also requiring a lenient schedule, the number of parents in the undergraduate classroom grew by more than 30 percent from 2004 to 2012. Adding one million more students during this eight-year time period, parents are considered one of the fastest-growing groups in college today.

In addition, almost half of students (43 percent) are only going to college on a part-time basis, which is also a group known for low completion rates. Thirty-five percent are attending two-year colleges and may need assistance with transferring to four-year schools. And 63 percent are first-generation students and may require more support from academic advisors and peer mentors.

Nontraditional Higher Ed Needs
Busy schedules and unique situations mean these students will find different postsecondary programs attractive.

  • Affordability: For students balancing academics and children, opportunities for childcare and ways to reduce financial responsibilities are important.
  • Flexible programs: Blended programs with night and online classes are key. It is also important to offer fully online degree programs, as 12 percent of students with four or more nontraditional characteristics will choose this option.
  • Competency-based education: Some institutions offer credit for skills gained in the workforce or during military service. It is a more comprehensive look at student skill levels and certainly makes these schools more attractive to nontraditional students.
  • Sliding enrollments – Schools offering sliding enrollments capture a wider audience.
  • Streamlined transfers: Many students begin their higher ed journey at a two-year with the intention to transfer and complete a four-year degree. And 14 percent will, in fact, earn a bachelor's degree within six years. Schools with articulation agreements in place are likely to boost outcomes.

Recruiting the Nontraditional Student
In addition to considering unique student needs, there are a few best practices for institutions and marketers to keep in mind.

  • Target your audience: Consider which segments of the nontraditional student population are the best fit. Then, match the school’s programs and unique offerings to serve this group. One example may be promoting an institution’s business degree options — as studies show students with multiple nontraditional qualities are more likely to study business.
  • Update marketing materials: In particular, ensure that the school’s online presence, including social media, website and inquiry portals, reflect a diverse group of students. Communications should be just as welcoming to the 40-something who just got laid off as it is to the high school senior on a sports scholarship.
  • Nurture the nontraditional lead: These prospects are not on a traditional timeline and may be in the pipeline for longer than the average lead. Be sure to build a relationship with this group over time and find relevant ways to stay in front of them.
  • Capture and analyze student-level data: Such data can help properly segment nontraditional audiences. In addition, robust tools allow marketers to assess and amplify campaign performance.

It’s important for schools and higher education marketers to consider nontraditional student needs when developing programs — from matriculation to degree completion. More of these students are filling seats in the classroom every single day. So, in fact, they are not exactly considered “nontraditional” anymore. 

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