Essential Rules for Designing Distance Degree Marketing Materials for
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.