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Interviewing Your Adult Students to Gain Critical Insights and Boost Enrollment

Tyson Schritter / COO, Abound and Colleges of Distinction

While there is much you can glean about marketing to adult students by combing through industry reports, reviewing web analytics, and collaborating with other higher ed colleagues, you can’t understand your adult audience fully except through interviewing adult students directly. To create a truly effective marketing story, you should get ahold of your adult audience for helpful insight through in-person or over-the-phone interviews.

The good news is that these interviews don’t have to be time intensive. You can find out everything you need to know in as few as 20-30 minutes. Regardless, you do need a clear idea of what specific key insights you want to acquire and to develop the right questions in order to get them. You’ll be amazed at how the valuable information you gain will help boost your marketing and meet enrollment goals.

Getting Adult Students to Talk to You

In order to begin interviewing adult students, you first need to collect names. You’re trying to understand why adults would make the decision to go back to school and what the process looks like. Or in the case of increasing adult student enrollment through organizational partnerships, you want to know what employees are looking for from a school. So it’s preferable to speak to both current and prospective students who have recently gone through and remember the admissions process themselves.

One easy way to acquire interviewees to begin interviewing adult students is to email prospective students and invite them to participate for a small gift card. Offering a reward of appreciation is an effective way to get busy adults to share 20-30 minutes of their time.

In addition to prospective students who have committed to your program (or just recently enrolled), it’s also important to speak to prospective students who didn’t choose to attend your school or otherwise failed to finish your online application. These individuals are especially valuable because they reveal blind spots in your marketing and admissions strategies.

While it’s great to be able to talk to a lot of adults, you don’t need to speak with several dozen. Talking to only six to eight people for each program can be more than enough to glean valuable insights.

Developing the Right Questions to Gain Adult Student Insights

Once you have a group to enable you to begin interviewing adult students, it’s time to develop the questions that will yield helpful answers. Some of these questions should include:

  • Finding out their reasons for going back to school
  • What they hope to do once they graduate
  • Their fears about returning to an academic setting
  • What kept them “on the fence” about returning, and so on.

We might think some of these answers are obvious. “Well, they obviously want to get a degree to make more money or change careers, right?” While those things might be true for certain adults, there are often less obvious reasons that your interviewees could reveal to you. Some might want to go back to enrich their knowledge base, set an example for their kids, or simply prove to themselves they can do it. Even if they do simply want to make more money, they might want to specifically so they can send their kids to college.

A higher salary and greater job prospects are not ends in themselves; they are means to an end—to better take care of one’s family, do more enjoyable work, or impact their industry for the better. Once you have these insights, you can then include them in your marketing to show your audience that you care about and understand them.


Third Party Validation: Distinguish Your School


Understanding Your Adult Students’ Buyer Journey

Secondly, you should ask questions that help you understand the entire buyer’s journey of adult students. From considering going back to school to hearing about your school and then to eventually making the decision to attend (or not).

Your questions need to hone in on specifics. What made them decide to start looking at adult programs? How did they hear about your school? What resources or people did they consult during this process? Which steps did they take online to apply? What obstacles did they encounter during the application process? How did the admissions counselors assist them?

Questions like these help reveal barriers in the buyer’s journey that you might not be addressing. While a larger and obvious barrier to going back to school might be money or time, there are often minor barriers that you could alleviate fairly easily. For example, maybe your website makes it hard to get information about the application process? Maybe a term you’re using in your website menu is confusing to visitors? Or maybe the process for transferring community college transcripts to your school is convoluted?

You need to ask questions that address the goals, desires, and fears related to earning a bachelor’s degree as well as the specific experience of navigating the admissions process.

Analyzing, Presenting, and Implementing Your Insights

Once you have conducted your interviews, it’s time to combine and organize your findings. Are there certain themes threaded throughout your interview responses? Is there a barrier that repeatedly comes up? Have you overlooked one important feature of your program that people would want to hear more about?

It’s important to analyze the results and present your findings to all necessary stakeholders, be that in marketing, admissions, or academics. This will help everyone understand their audience better and enable you to collaborate with them to implement next steps.

And here is the final step: you need to actually implement these next steps and change your strategies in response to your feedback! Such changes can be as simple as adjusting the copy on your brochure or updating the information architecture of your website.

If adult students tend to hear about your program through radio, then consider a more robust radio campaign. Perhaps they are selecting other schools because of a lack of communication, then audit your email campaigns. Or possibly students are apprehensive about program quality, then consider ways to obtain third-party validation.

Obviously, there are countless ways to reach and assist your adult audience. Some improvements will require more effort and resources than others, but you can create a realistic plan with your stakeholders with knowledge of the most necessary pain points. Often you can address the low-hanging fruit immediately while still implementing a longer-term plan to address the larger issues down the road.

Don’t Forget to Reanalyze

And after you’ve made adjustments and measured how they affected your application and enrollment goals, it might be time to conduct more interviews. Your audience’s expectations shift over time. And so, whether it’s every six months or every two years, it’s important to conduct interviews with your adult audience regularly and make sure you’re doing all you can to meet their needs and expectations.

For more information on gaining customer insights through user interviews, check out Adele Revella’s Buyer Personas: How to Gain Insight into your Customer’s Expectations, Align your Marketing Strategies, and Win More Business.

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