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Why Marketing to Nontraditional College Students is Never Easy

As the start of the academic year rolls along, it’s easy to approach your marketing strategy in a way that caters to a specific audience: 18-year-olds who have recently graduated high school and are looking to dive head first into coursework, new social opportunities, internships, and sporting events. But, these students make up only one small piece of the college student pie.

In fact, “Learners who aren’t 17-24, and who aren’t registered full time, now make up roughly 70 percent of the enrolled population,” according to higher education thought leader, Stamats.

There is no longer an “average” college student in the modern classroom. Nontraditional students are commonly defined as 25 and older, with full-time job, and looking to either advance their current career or change their career path. But maybe this description is too limited.

Nontraditional students may often be working adults, but they may also be younger adults who commute to campus instead of living in the dorms. They may be international students who are new to the country, or older individuals who are looking to advance their knowledge by taking classes at a discounted rate. Whatever their age, lifestyle, and motivations, nontraditional college students cannot be ignored when developing your marketing strategy. 

But, how do we market to a nontraditional audience if we can’t easily categorize it?

Any marketer will tell you the first and most important step in developing marketing initiatives is defining and understanding your target consumer. With college students ranging from 17 to 80 years old, working part time, full time, or not at all, how do you reach them?

Don’t worry, we’ve got the answers—and the numbers—you’re looking for.

Understand Your Audience

Although the nontraditional college student isn’t likely attending college in the traditional sense—living on campus, taking daytime classes, and socializing with peers on the quad—they still want to know how they fit in at your institution, and how you can help them achieve their goals.

According to a study by Barnes and Noble, 90 percent of college students list cost of tuition as their most important factor when choosing a school to attend—which might be why 69 percent of students opt for online courses, a less costly option than a traditional four-year curriculum.

Create an Engaging Web Presence

Think of prospective students as consumers. In today’s digital landscape, everyone’s buyer journey begins with a search. For this reason, it is important your site is optimized, so search engines—like Google—find you quickly and easily, index your content appropriately, and reward you with high rankings in the search engine results pages (SERPs).

Once a prospective student finds your site, it’s important they stick around to gather information and gain an understanding of how your organization meets their needs. In order for that to happen, informative, engaging, and targeted content should be present across every web page.

When creating content for your website—or engaging a marketing agency to do so for you—consider these questions:

  • What information are nontraditional student seeking?
  • What motivates them to make decisions?
  • What hurdles or roadblocks do they face?

According to the Content Marketing Institute, organizations with strong, compelling, and targeted content on their website and social channels see almost 8 times more site traffic than those who do not house strategic content on their site. If you want to see greater site engagement and an increase in ROI from your content marketing efforts, you need to be sharing engaging content with your target audience.

Communicate Effectively

To truly entice prospective college students to not only engage with your site, but to apply for enrollment, you must first decide which segments of the nontraditional student population are most important to your organization. Then, laser focus on them. Using inbound marketing, as opposed to traditional, outbound marketing initiatives (i.e., billboards, direct mail, radio spots) will not only save you money and give you better results, but also help establish your organization as an authority on the programs offered to nontraditional students.

Ask yourself: What needs are prospective students looking to have met? How does our institution meet these needs?

Prospective nontraditional students will come to your site in hopes of learning how to complete a degree, pursue a new one, or make the next step in their career. The “sales cycle” for nontraditional college students varies tremendously, which is why it is absolutely vital to nurture these leads.

Remember, these prospects may be in your pipeline for a long time. With a family to support, a job to work, or a less-than-ideal financial situation, it can take longer for nontraditional students to make a the best academic decision for them. Use this opportunity to continue building a strong relationship with every prospective student.

Answer their questions in a timely manner—or, better yet, create content that answers their questions before they ask. Nurture the relationship with frequent emails and newsletters, as personalized emails can effectively build a sense of urgency for application. According to University Business, a strategic email nurturing campaign can boost online applications.

Finally, be sure to fulfill the commitment you made to your nontraditional students by using content marketing to encourage and support them through their journey toward enrollment.

Analyze and Optimize

Numbers are important. Whether you’re looking for an uptick in site traffic or a boost in enrollment, you’ll only understand the fruits of your labor by analyzing data. Measure the performance of your website and social channels and, if the numbers are smaller than expected, revisit your strategy and optimize, optimize, optimize.

Ask yourself: What needs are prospective students looking to have met? How does our institution meet these needs? Then, publish content that answers these questions, so prospective nontraditional students find what they need.

The Bottom Line

The modern college student comes in all shapes and sizes. Marketing to nontraditional college students is never easy, but by clearly defining your target audience, creating optimized web content that answers students’ questions, and continually analyzing data to inform future decisions, you will be well on your way to increasing site traffic and ultimately, enrollment at your institution. Start by determining—once and for all—who your audience is and how your institution meets their needs.

Erika Voeller

Erika is passionate about content creation and brand growth. As a copywriter, she uses her talent for writing to help elevate brands. When she's not writing, you'll find her practicing yoga, exploring Minneapolis, or sipping on iced coffee.