Five Essential Rules for Designing Distance Degree Marketing Materials for Adult Learners

by Vicky Phillips

Adult distance learners remain the new kids on the academic block. The nature of adult learners and what they need or want from college at mid-life is much debated. What unique services should colleges provide for adult distance learners? Since distance learners won't be coming to campus, the outreach materials used to recruit, advise, and retain them should be carefully developed with their needs in mind. In an attempt to better design outreach materials for adult learners, the academic counseling division of the Electronic University Network, a private online educational service, collected and reviewed the outreach materials used by eighty-four undergraduate degree granting colleges. We then queried fifty adult learners enrolled in the Electronic University's distance learner's academic counseling service for their opinions on these outreach materials. These adults were all seeking distance degree programs in fields ranging from architecture to telecommunications. Their average age was thirty-six.

Our informal study led us to develop the following five essential rules for use in developing future outreach materials.

Five Essential Rules of Outreach

Rule #1: Adopt an Attitude

Most adults have been away from "the books" for two decades. Adult learners are out-of-step developmentally. Adults returning to college do so with doubts. "No one but me is this far behind in life! I'm too old to take tests!" Distance learning materials must affirm that learning is not age bound in a culture that coveys the contrary. They need to adopt an encouraging you-can-do-this attitude. The display of real life role models may be crucial for adult distance learners who are attempting higher education anachronistically, in isolation from immediate peer and faculty support.

The overwhelming favorite among adult learners we queried for having "an attitude" was Pennsylvania State University. Outreach materials developed by Pennsylvania State University included snapshots of students, including a determined grandmother in tennis shoes, an enrollee in their special "Go 60" degree program. Also included were snapshots from faculty with quotes that promised easy access along with practical approaches to course topics.

Rule #2: Assume that Money Matters

The major complaint adults expressed about outreach materials was that the price of college was often dismissed. Interestingly, seven of the eighty-four colleges we surveyed made no mention of the tuition rates or fees for their programs in their outreach materials. Less than a third of the colleges provided direct information on the availability of financial aid. The attitude that money does not matter was evident in the outreach materials and in direct contradiction to the attitude held by the majority of adult learners.

Adult learners are practiced consumers. Many face educating themselves and their children simultaneously. Distance learning programs inherently recognize that adults have limited time and access opportunities, yet most fail to acknowledge that adults also have limited income. To help adult learners, outreach materials should include a statement on financial aid and whom to contact to discuss aid, since this is often handled by a different department. Financial aid officers trained to deal with the budgetary concerns of adult learners can help adults understand what to expect from a government financial aid program that was originally designed for dependent, non-working students.

Southwestern Assemblies of God College, of Waxahachie, Texas, was one of the few programs that included a financial brochure, "Making Your Southwestern Education Affordable," in their outreach materials. The tone of the brochure, "We Are Here to Help," was clear, concise, and encouraging. The brochure stressed that college aid was available for the middle class and was written to demystify the financial aid maze for working adults.

Rule #3: Recognize Education As a Career Quest

Adults want more information on how academic majors and degrees translate into specific career goals. "Will this accounting degree qualify me to be a CPA? Can I be a licensed school teacher if I complete this math degree? Will this degree qualify me to take the Engineering exam?" Half of all programs that provided degree majors tied to post-baccalaureate licensing or certification, such as engineering or accounting, failed to mention whether these degrees would qualify learners for post-graduation needs or if their approvals were state specific.

Adults who return to college are adults in transition. Many seek to change their long-term career situation through educational achievement. Given the correlation between higher education and efforts by adults to change their career situations, we were surprised to learn that only two degree-granting colleges offered a career course in their curriculum. So were our adult learners.

Rule #4: Provide Easy and Responsive Access

After we reviewed the outreach materials of all colleges, we sent letters to sixteen colleges, asking for additional information on items not made clear in their initial materials. Questions posed ranged from the availability of academic majors to the availability of credit for work experience. We identified ourselves as prospective students in these queries to see what kind of responses an adult learner might expect.

Of the sixteen letters sent asking for specific additional information, only four were answered. Four programs never replied and the other eight re-sent identical outreach materials and form letters. This raises the alarming question: who, if anyone, is minding the distance learning mailroom?

When adult learners were asked how satisfied they were with the responsiveness of distance learning programs to their questions, a shout of dismay came back. Wrote one business woman, "If I ran my company like this college I'd have been bankrupt years ago."

Rule #5: Provide a Preparatory Academy

Over half the adult learners queried expressed fear about taking a course in higher college math. These learners wanted a course in pre-college math to build their skills and confidence before taking college algebra, which is often required.

Finding a distance degree program that offered college preparatory work in math, English, and study skills was a problem for those who wanted this option. Less than a quarter of the programs we reviewed offered college preparatory courses in any of these areas. Yet the majority of the baccalaureate degree programs required six credits or more of composition, and math at College Algebra level or above with the accompanying sciences.

Practical Implications for Distance Education Outreach

Assessing Current Materials

While colleges debate whether or not they should be assessed from a consumer perspective, a clear indication from this study is that adults do look at education from a consumer and customer service perspective. They care about price and they care about the responsiveness of colleges to their unique needs and questions.

Many adults will graduate from a distance program either without setting foot on the campus -- and therefore in the financial aid office or the counseling office -- or after having spent only a week or two on campus. Adult distance learners must rely heavily on the written materials they receive to assess a prospective college; after that they must rely on the responsiveness of the college to their unique and complex needs. Inadequate written materials or a lack of interpretative access clearly discourages, rather than invites, adults back into the learning process at mid-life.

Adult learners may shop around among the over one hundred undergraduate level distance degree colleges open to them. If adults do this, wouldn't it benefit college personnel to do the same? Periodically reviewing the outreach materials of other colleges may help programs remain responsive. How do other colleges welcome adult learners? Could borrowing their ideas and techniques make your program more responsive to the needs of adult learners? Assessing materials on the five rules above should benefit any distance degree college.

Involving Front Line Advisors

Why are adult distance education degree materials seen by adult learners as lacking in so many key areas? Our study was undertaken by a front line academic counselor who continually responds to the gripes and suggestions of potential adult students.

Materials developed by administrative or marketing staff may not reflect the true-life concerns that advisors address each day with prospective adult students. Administrative staff who have worked with campus-only programs may inadvertently carry over ideas and attitudes that work well for traditional campus recruitment but do not respond to the unique needs of adult learners. The concept of a college preparatory academy, for instance, is still a new one for most four-year campus-based colleges, though less so for community colleges.

Colleges have traditionally separated admissions from financial aid. This separation seems particularly unsuited to adult learners whose financial concerns are at a different level than the traditional 18-year-old student. Cross-training academic advisors in academic, career, and financial aid policies may help ease adults back into higher education.

Finally, listening to front line advisors and to what prospective students say by phone and in letters may be the best and most cost-effective method of making an annual review in an effort to design outreach materials and services that speak -- not mumble! -- to the adult learners who use them.

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