Higher Education Marketing Personas in 2020

January 10, 2020 | By: Nick Dan-Bergman | 4 min read

Student in Class at a Higher Education Institution

To better understand the make-up of students pursuing higher education in 2020, LaneTerralever, an advertising and marketing agency, conducted a research study that headed the creation of a robust white paper geared towards the interest of marketing executives in the education industry. The findings from the research survey provide key insights into the evolution of the student body, specifically the demographic shifts and notable changes in motivations and barriers of those pursuing higher education. 

The white paper details information crucial to educational institution executives' understanding of the current and future student body and how messaging and marketing efforts should reflect an understanding of those changes to improve enrollment and retention numbers.

Data gathered from the survey findings laid out the foundation of key personas who make up the growing populous of those pursuing higher education. At the forefront of the student persona examples lies the understanding that, in the coming years, the majority of first-year higher education students will be over the age of 25; no longer the fresh-faced high school graduates whom freshman orientation focuses most of its appeal. These students are referred to as non-traditional adult learners – non-traditional in the fact that their need state, in the realm of education, differs from the need state of the student pursuing higher education immediately following secondary education.

In an NPR interview, David Scobey, previously a professor at The New School in New York City, noticed "that they [adult learners] tend to thrive on the same kinds of high-quality learning opportunities that all college students do: small seminars, capstone projects, internships, a broad liberal arts curriculum." Additionally, Scobey notes that, in his experience, adult learners attribute their choice to attend The New School to the available bachelor's program designed specifically for adults ("What Adult Learners Really Need (Hint: It's Not Just Job Skills"). This example supports the argument that adult learners look for programs that are tailored toward their needs and are more likely to attend institutions that understand how their needs differ from those of the younger student.

Higher Education Marketing Personas

4 College Student Personas

Four primary student personas make up the non-traditional adult learners returning to higher education in 2020. These four college student personas are the job-ladder climber, the career switcher, military, and those with unfinished business.

Job-Ladder Climber

After getting adjusted to a job, some people find that the trajectory of their career goals aligns with their current position, company, and desire to move up the ranks in their division. In other cases, career advancement is spurred by the need to make a higher income. To gain a competitive edge over other qualified candidates for a higher position, adult learners look to further their education as the typical course of action. 

This group responds well to advertisements that discuss the future job opportunities made possible with further education and messages that provide information on the earning potential of their degree, all relating to the main motivator of climbing the job ladder and increasing income.

Career Switcher

The career switcher is at an intersection in life, typically younger and looking for what other career options are available to them – hence the career switch. However, to prove proficient in other areas of specialty, additional education is typically needed. These adult students are motivated by the prospect of improved earning potential and the opportunity to further education in a field of study of their interest. They respond best to messaging that voices their shared belief that each student pursues education for a different reason. They want to feel validated and empowered on their specific journey and not generalized into a large group.


After returning from their service, the main reasons a military veteran wants to return to education is for improved earning potential and career advancement. They're looking to gain skills that make them more employable in mainstream occupations, which is why higher education institutions that advertise future job opportunities are most appealing to this group. 

Those who are active or inactive military have a unique shared experience, an important singular detail to incorporate into marketing to prospective military students. Additionally, when speaking directly to the individual, the differences in age, gender, income, and life experience result in a need for messaging that gets personal on a granular level. Also crucial to market are the campus efforts explicitly tailored for veterans, like specialized orientation programs, helping veterans connect, training faculty and staff on challenges veterans face, and offering additional school counseling. According to military.com, without such programs, veterans risk feeling isolated and alone on campus, perpetuating the rate of drop-outs seen from this group of military veteran students ("Veterans Returning to College Face Unique Challenges").

Unfinished Business

For many people who began higher education and left before attaining their degree, a combination of insufficient finances and lack of guidance and proper support during their studies led them to drop out. Similar to the other personas, this person feels unique in their situation and wants an educational institution to understand them for who they are at this moment. To show understanding, institutions should speak directly to the pain points and needs associated with a return to education, in their marketing, while understanding that the choice to pursue education is a very personal one.

College Students at Graduation

The value of education today, and in the future, relies on the ability of a degree to aid a student's pursuit of personal and career development goals, be that student a young adult just beginning their career or an experienced worker looking for a change. Marketing Higher Education to Non-Traditional Students provides a deeper dive into these student persona examples and offers unparalleled insights into the motivators and behaviors of the student body that will help inform a successful higher education marketing campaign for any institution, ranging from a four-year university to a certification program. Download the white paper now to stay ahead of the changing trends in higher education.

LaneTerralever is marketing agency that specializes in developing higher education marketing strategies for clients, including Universal Technical Institute, Northcentral University, Rio Salado College, and Touro University Worldwide. As part of our ongoing commitment to better understanding the student landscape, we conduct primary research to help us develop marketing personas for institutions. In our latest white paper, we aimed to gain a better understanding of the motivations and barriers facing non-traditional students as they consider a return to school. Download the white paper here.

Higher Education In 2020 - Marketing To Non-Traditional Students

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