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Introducing a Better Way to Recruit Adult Students With Your Advertising

Tyson Schritter

Adult students make up a large number of those seeking education. In fact, the majority of degree seekers in the U.S. are adult students (aged 23 or older). And while COVID-19 is having a drastic effect on the economy, there are still some adults who may consider returning to school to better stand out in an extremely competitive labor market. As a result, developing efficient and targeted approaches to recruiting these students has the potential to pay off in major ways.

When it comes to traditional students (aged 18-22), it’s easier to identify which young adults are likely to be interested in college (sophomores and juniors in high school, students who have taken the SATs, students enrolled in AP courses, etc.). It’s much harder, however, to do so with adult students; they can vary tremendously when it comes to age, years of previous college credit, career, demographics, location, family life, schooling preference, and so on.

Recruiting these students is challenging because they have unique and specific needs. Schools often spend resources and money trying to reach a large bucket of adults, many of whom are not interested in returning to school.

For example, there are an estimated 36 million American adults who have some college credit but no degree, otherwise known as “Potential Completers.” But the percentage of adults that are considered “Potential Completers” can vary from 10 percent (like in California) to 15 percent (like in Delaware). Information like this can be helpful to your recruiting efforts in order to ensure you’re not wasting resources advertising to those with no intention of returning to school.

With that in mind, we’ve broken down common recruitment strategies: traditional advertising and digital and social media advertising. Both can be effective and should likely play some role in your overall marketing strategy, but there are key ways to ensure these strategies are even more effective with a greater return on investment. It’s by using a predictive analytics solution that you can identify and recruit the right prospective adult students. We’ll cover the basics of the major advertising strategies and then dig into how you can make each one that much more effective.

Traditional Advertising

Traditional advertising refers to those found in print, on the television or radio, and outdoors (on banners, billboards, etc.). It is a staple of any marketing strategy because it still remains one of the best ways to get your school in front of a large number of people.

With radio, you can reach adults commuting home from work—a time when they might be thinking about how much they’d like to make a career switch. With TV, you can combine copy, visuals, and music to build widespread emotional connections to your school. And with print and outdoor ads, you can generate repeated touch points through newspapers, billboards, magazine and newspaper ads, mailed flyers, and more (all of which can be especially effective for older adults who are less reliant on technology).

Yet this type of advertising can be extremely expensive. A few years ago, paid advertising for U.S. colleges and universities reached $1.65 billion. Of this amount, 34 percent was spent on TV, 7 percent on radio, and 15 percent on print/outdoor, meaning more than half was used for traditional advertising.

Securing a 30-second TV or radio spot can cost thousands (even millions) of dollars depending on your market. Ads on TV, as well as on the radio, require a lot of resources to draft, produce, and disseminate creatively (often demanding a talented and experienced in-house marketing team or an expensive third-party agency).

Of course, other less expensive forms of advertising, such as newspaper or local magazine ads, can help you stay within budget, though these forms aren’t necessarily the most effective ways to reach people. While people still read newspapers and magazines, many now spend the majority of their time consuming content online.

These types of traditional advertising usually make sense in your marketing, though mainly for branding purposes. In other words, it helps inform (and remind) your audience that your school exists and offers certain programs in the first place. It represents a “shotgun” approach to marketing in which a lot of resources are used to reach as many people as possible.

Digital and Social Media Advertising

Digital and social media advertising include Google search ads, retargeting ads, display and banner ads as well as Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn ads, to name a few. Returning to the $1.65 billion spent on advertising mentioned above, the remaining 44 percent was used for online advertising.

This strategy can be much cheaper than traditional advertising (depending on how robust your digital and social media campaigns are), and schools are continuing to spend more of their marketing budget on this type of advertising to expand their reach and match consumer habits with technology.

Through using analytics and behavior-based algorithms, you can target people more likely to consider your school (those with interests in business, those in a specific career, etc.). By using SEO strategies, you can engage people you already know are interested in pursuing their education due to their active online searching. And through Google retargeting ads, you can continue to convince someone who visited your website or landing page to take the next step in the “buyer’s journey.” Plus, you can more easily determine the real-time success of a given campaign by looking at analytics and data (you can do this to some extent with traditional advertising, but not to the same level of detail).

The same is true with social media marketing. If you’re looking to promote an online nursing program, you can reach people working in the healthcare industry on LinkedIn. And if you’re interested in finding business students, you can use Facebook to target people who follow business-related groups and speakers. In this way, digital advertising allows you to be much more targeted with your advertising to adult prospective students. If traditional advertising is a “shotgun” approach, then digital advertising is a more of a “rifle” approach.

Of course, this can also be quite expensive (as evidenced by the many millions of dollars spent on it). And, as a smaller school, it can be difficult to get the most out of your digital advertising with a limited budget. If you’re trying to compete on Google’s search engine for a given search term (e.g. online MBA programs), you will be competing against extremely well-known brands with a lot of money to spend.

Secondly, employing digital advertising well requires a fair amount of technical expertise and knowledge. You need to regularly monitor your keywords, click rates, the fluctuating popularity of search terms, social media engagement, and so on. This may require you to outsource your digital advertising efforts to a third party, which, of course, can be costly.

Is There a Better Way to Identify—and Recruit—Prospective Adult Students?

But what if there were a way to make both traditional and digital advertising more effective? To better ensure that you’re actually targeting the right adults who are interested in returning to school? Now there is with Abound: Campaigns, an innovative technology that strategically identifies adults before advertising to them.

Abound: Campaigns relies on refined data from CollegeAPP a pool of the most up-to-date information from both public and commercial sources. Advanced algorithms, along with other powerful processing tools, are used to screen the data for accuracy and relevance. From this data, Abound: Campaigns identifies adults’ “intent” and “preference” levels, giving you a database of prospects whom you can target at the person level as opposed to the broad-strokes guessing game that is based on crude demographic markers.


There is a large pool of “intentional” prospects who might consider attending one of your adult degree completion or graduate programs. The challenge, of course, is identifying them. But through large survey samples and machine learning predictive analytics, you can now use Abound: Campaigns to target specific prospective adult students who are much stronger leads than the adults in the general population.


Beyond having an intent to return to school, though, there is another critical factor: preference for program type. While it’s important to know that someone intends to return to school, it’s much more useful to know whether they “prefer” to return to earn a business or nursing degree. Now you can also target individuals who actually have a preference for one or more of your programs.

Knowing which adults both intend to return to school and prefer to pursue your institution type provides an incredible benefit to your advertising. In fact, President Obama’s team used a similar technology in 2012 to identify potential voters—ultimately proving to be successful. They used this approach to help campaign to “the individuality of each voter” as opposed to only their demographic category.

With Abound: Campaigns, you can now build a pipeline of students with a much higher chance of enrolling thanks to its skilled identification of “intent” and “preference.” Whether you’re mailing brochures, sending relevant email campaigns, or targeting prospects online, you can increase the chances that your traditional and online advertising strategies will result in a higher return on investment.

Of course, even once you know who to target, you’ll still need to make sure your traditional and digital advertising strategies are well crafted, featuring third-party validation, telling a good story with your branding, and following best practices for reaching and engaging adult students.

So, if you’ve only been using “shotgun” and “rifle” approaches with your advertising, the help of Abound: Campaigns equips you with a “sniper” approach. Discover today how you can begin implementing Abound’s new predictive analytics solution to start reaching—and recruiting—highly quality prospective adult students.

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