5 Non-Traditional Student Recruitment Mistakes to Avoid

4 min read
March 22, 2017

Non-Traditional Student Recruitment woman studying in the library.jpeg
The college admissions process has changed significantly over the last 30 years and continues to be in a constant state of flux. The advent of the internet and tools like the common application has given prospective students so much more control in the process. The role of the admissions professional has dramatically shifted from one of gatekeeper holding applications up to a rubric to much more of a marketing professional, responsible for student recruitment.

Conversely it has made the marketplace much more competitive for applicants and institutions alike. With online classes becoming the norm rather than the exception, neither party is limited by geography, time, schedule or circumstance. The concept of education taught in the traditional classroom has been flipped on its head. From this, the non-traditional student was born and colleges and universities have been courting them ever since.


While the exact definition is subject to debate, the non-traditional student, most certainly is not your average 18-year-old recent high school graduate. She is a working-class adult who sustains a career to support her family. The degree she is pursuing is part of a conscious effort to improve her career outlook and opportunities. 30 years ago, this wouldn’t have been possible. Perusing an education while working full-time wasn’t an option for most families.


Today’s landscape however has made non-traditional student recruitment the new frontier for enrollment services, admissions and university marketing departments. According to the National Center for Education Statistics there are 17.6 million undergraduates. Thirty-eight percent of those enrolled in higher education are over the age of 25 and 25 percent are over the age of 30. The share of all students who are over age 25 is projected to increase another twenty-three percent by 2019. But reaching these elusive students can be challenging. Here are 5 non-traditional student recruitment mistakes to avoid.

Thinking Non-Traditional Means They’re Such in Every Sense

Often what classifies students as non-traditional is circumstances. They effort to be traditional in every other sense. They seek to engage with professors, network with their fellow students, enjoy the “campus life” as much as possible. Especially for adult students, studies show there tends to be a renewed vigor for education, and as such they embrace all aspects of the college experience. One mistake often made in non-traditional student recruitment campaigns is thinking these students want an abbreviated or antiseptic student experience, this is an assumption that can be a fatal flaw.

Not Subscribing to an Inbound Marketing Strategy

For the non-traditional student, the return on their investment is paramount. Any successful Non-Traditional student recruitment campaign must subscribe to an inbound marketing strategy. Inbound marketing is an approach focused on attracting students through content and engagement that is relevant and provides value that is not interruptive. With inbound marketing, non-traditional students find colleges through digital channels like blogs, search engines, and social media unlike outbound marketing, which fights for their attention. By creating content designed to address the academic concerns and needs, inbound marketing attracts prospective students and builds trust and credibility the institution.

Expecting Them to Invest in You Without Doing The Same in Them

For the non-traditional student, a decision to pursue a degree program is a major investment in their career and future. To earn their commitment, it requires a similar investment, one of time. The decision is not one taken lightly. Unlike their traditional counterpart who prioritizes academics, campus life and extracurricular activities, the non-traditional student must consider flexible class schedules, accelerated degree programs and most importantly alignment with their current or aspirational career path.

Being Anti-Social

Non-Traditional students have experience. By nature, they have been in the professional world where they required to do independent research, provide feedback to management, seek training tools and accept constructive criticism. This makes them inherently curious. Expect their college search to reflect that and your marketing should be responsive to those needs. It’s a mistake to think they have the shortened attention spans of their graduating senior counterparts. Over communicate with them and provide a mechanism for real engagement throughout the buying process. Provide research tools for them to get the answers they need on their own and be prepared for your team to fill in the gaps when they can’t. Social media is your friend and theirs too. Consider developing a social strategy designed specifically for engaging non-traditionals. It will pay dividends.

Thinking a "No" Today Means "No" Forever

This might seem obvious but it’s worth emphasizing. It’s a mistake to believe that because a non-traditional student didn’t enroll this semester doesn’t mean they won’t next semester. You aren’t necessarily competing against other schools for their education, but more often the various other mitigating factors in their lives, including career, family obligations, time and finances. For any student, the sales cycle is and should be longer than most purchases given the investment in future returns. For non-traditional students, the decision is rarely binary. Your campaign should help them simplify their decision. Focus on common objections and provide simple solutions to eliminate perceived hurdles. For many non-traditional students, the roadblocks are often anxieties they have about returning to college. Your campaign should empathize with those concerns and assure them you will be partners in their journey through and beyond graduation. Your recruitment campaign should be sustained and not seasonal, non-traditional students think in fiscals not semesters. If open enrollment isn’t available at your institution keep them consistently engaged in the process even when applications aren’t being accepted.



While non-traditional student recruitment isn’t at all like common practice. To treat them as such or make general assumptions about them as a whole is a mistake. While there are common trends, it’s important to understand every student comes with her own set of unique challenges, a blend quite different than the last. What makes the students unconventional dictates a similarly different approach to attaining and retaining them. While it may require a shift in your recruitment strategy just like their educational investment in your institution, it will pay dividends down the road.


Non-Traditional Student Recruitment & Grassroots Marketing Case Study

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