The State of the Adult Learner Market

Trends and Emerging Strategies for Marketing, Recruiting and Collaboration

The knowledge economy, millennial learners and a coming demographic crunch are driving a sense of urgency for innovation in online and adult education.

That’s according to a national look at the State of the Adult Learner Market, hosted this spring by UW Continuum College and featuring a presentation from EAB, a national firm that advises more than 1,200 colleges and universities on enrollment, operations and student success.

According to EAB, professional master’s degrees remain a flagship credential, but universities must think differently about instructional design, marketing and engagement to stay competitive and serve a new generation of learners.

The Next Generations

Colleges and universities spent years scaling up programs and facilities to educate children of the Baby Boomer generation, according to John Tannous, director of research delivery at EAB.


Families were often challenged to keep up with the resulting jumps in tuition and cost of living, even with big increases in financial aid. At the same time, nearly all U.S. states pulled back on public funding for higher education.

“As we become less market-insulated, we’re more reliant on hitting our enrollment goals every year,” Tannous said. “We need that tuition revenue to cover the bills in a way that we didn’t 30 years ago.”

But families are having fewer kids, and the number of high school graduates is expected to decline. This shift will lead to a drop in traditional college enrollment, so universities are already preparing to deliver new ways of learning amid the budget and demographic shifts.

Who’s Who Among Today’s Learners

Tannous outlined three different target markets within the world of adult and online learning:

  • Multimodal undergraduates: a small market of traditional undergraduates who take a couple of their classes online for convenience or flexibility
  • Adult degree completers: students seeking a fast, cost-efficient way to complete the last few credits to complete their bachelor’s degree while also often working full-time and/or raising a family
  • Professional graduate students: established, working professionals, often in their 30s, who are seeking a credential to advance or change careers

Professional graduate students represent a large portion of these students and are a “sweet spot in the market,” according to Tannous. But traditional master’s programs aren’t the right fit for everyone. Some popular alternatives include:

  • Stackable certificates, which can be combined into full master’s degrees and may qualify for tuition reimbursement related to job function
  • Second bachelor’s degrees, which Tannous likened to earning a double-major
  • Bootcamps, which can cover a whole program in just a few full days, and have emerged as a top pick for millennials who enjoy engaging, face-to-face experiences

Unconventional Growth

The professional master’s degree has long been the “flagship credential” of the graduate market, Tannous said. Historically, 60 percent of these degrees have been awarded in just four major areas — business, education, law and healthcare. Enrollment in those programs remains steady but flat.

“Employers are begging for colleges and universities to help them create the versatile professionals they need."

 — John Tannous, Director of Research Delivery at EAB

Now, professionals are finding they need specific skills or credentials to secure licensed or technical jobs in the knowledge economy. But, Tannous said, employers can’t or don’t offer as much on-the-job training as they did for generations past.

“Employers are begging for colleges and universities to help them create the versatile professionals they need,” he said.

As mid-career students seek these advanced credentials, the number of master’s degrees is expected to rise 36 percent in the next four years. At the same time, that’s being outpaced by graduate-level certificates and noncredit, short-format programs.

According to EAB, the fastest-growing programs are workforce-oriented in fields such as math and computer science (data science, data analytics and cybersecurity), public administration and health sciences. He said there’s also growth in niche and newly-at-scale fields, including:

  • Construction Management
  • Digital Fabrication (or 3D printing)
  • Financial Analysis
  • Geographic Information Science (GIS)
  • Health Informatics
  • Social Media Management
  • Supply Chain Logistics
  • Sustainability Management

“Be clear, this is not a hall pass to avoid doing market research,” Tannous said. “You still need to see if these things make sense for you.”

Online Education: Myths & Misconceptions

Myth: Online programs attract students from around the world.

“One common misconception is that if you put a program online, you will suddenly find you’ve tapped into a national, or even a global audience of people who want to take that program,” Tannous said. “The reality is very different.”

In fact, 56 percent of online students live in the same state as their institution, in part because students often value access to in-person services.

56 percent of online students live in the same state as their institution, in part because students often value access to in-person services.

Myth: Online learning means lower-quality education.

That doesn’t have to be true, Tannous said. Any online offerings should be tied to institutional goals from the start, and like any in-person program, online classes require proper planning for assignments, assessments, testing, discussion groups and interactions among students and instructors.

“Most research has found that learning effectiveness comes down to basic instructional design,” Tannous said. “You can do those things online. How you do it makes all the difference.”

Myth: Online classes mean lower operational costs.

Actually, Tannous said, it depends.

“The microeconomics of online classes are the same as face-to-face classes,” Tannous said. “It all comes down to those decisions you make about sections, sizing and staffing.”

Behind-the-Scenes Research

As today’s would-be students consider their education options, they aren’t picking up the phone. Rather, Tannous said they stealthily gather information about degree programs, costs, timelines and admission requirements; often, they don’t even directly contact a college before applying.

"They may be evaluating us online for years,” Tannous said. “The average person is going to come back and touch your website about three times before they ever click any button on it.”

This “silent funnel” of prospects is a challenge for marketing and enrollment planning. In addition, it’s getting more expensive to reach prospective graduate students through paid advertising, lead generation and other marketing.

One strategy: “Flip” the marketing message. Marketing materials and websites still need to highlight program availability, costs and admission requirements, but in today’s tight labor market, people respond more to emotional appeals that speak to their stage in life and career.

When working professionals see testimonials, info about average salaries and data about jobs in a growing industry, they can start to imagine how they could personally benefit from an advanced credential or a new career field, Tannous said.

“This is the single greatest area where we recommend for colleges and universities to spend more time focusing,” he said.