Walk into a classroom at the start of the semester today, and alongside 18-year olds living on their own for the first time, you’ll also see older students with life experience, work experience, and perhaps a family to support.

These students are looking for a different type of experience.

Non-traditional students typically enroll in education to further their careers, and you could argue they have more at stake.

And as you probably know, non-traditional students have lower retention and graduation rates compared to their traditional counterparts.

So, in an increasingly competitive higher education landscape, it’s vital to identify and address the struggles of non-traditional students.

How do you identify a non-traditional student?

According to the Association of American Colleges & Universities, the non-traditional student is difficult to define in a sentence, because the term can encompass so many attributes. Students may be considered non-traditional if they meet one or more of the following characteristics:

  • Entry to college is delayed by at least one year following high school
  • Having dependents
  • Being a single parent
  • Being employed full time
  • Being financially independent
  • Attending part time
  • Not having a high school diploma

“First-generation” students are also considered non-traditional.

According to enrollment figures, non-traditional students are most likely to attend a community college or a for-profit institution. Flexibility is a huge incentive for non-traditional students, particularly learners with a job and a family to support.

Community colleges and for-profits generally offer programs that can be completed within two years and focus on skills and workforce-applicable routes, such as nursing.

But in a bid to boost enrollment, higher education institutions across the spectrum are diversifying into vocational options.

“Returning to school later in life as a non-traditional student was a little intimidating at first because I had to learn how to be a student all over again.”

What challenges do non-traditional students face?

  • Anxieties around affordability
  • Finding the time to study
  • Achieving a work-study-life balance
  • Feeling isolated on campus
  • Lack of access to services
  • Issues around self-confidence

A 2021 study by Western Governors University about the challenges faced by non-traditional students in Utah found the costs of college and finding the time to study poses a barrier for many.

“What we learned is that there are two big obstacles for non-traditional students and they’re not surprising,” said Wesley Smith, WGU’s senior vice president of policy and public affairs.

“One is cost, our research indicates that 89% say that cost is an obstruction to pursuing higher education and the other is time.”

An increasing number of adult learners are entering higher education for the first time, however many non-traditional students in college are those who’ve decided to return to college later in life to finish a degree they didn’t complete the first time around.

Findings published in New Directions for Student Services indicate that many adult learners show a “lack of self-confidence upon re-entry to college.”

Low confidence may stem from previous experiences, which is why it’s important for colleges to adapt their learning environments to support learners with different needs.

Non-traditional students may also feel like there just aren’t enough hours in the day.

First-generation students (those who are the first in their families to attend college) may face barriers at home. For instance, they might feel misunderstood in the sense that their relatives are unable to relate to what they’re going through.

Students whose parents or siblings attended college can draw upon their relatives’ experience of applying for financial aid, for instance. For first-generation students, these processes are often more difficult to navigate.

Addressing the needs of non-traditional students

So, what can colleges do to create a more inclusive experience?

1. Offer flexibility and online learning

Prospective non-traditional learners, particularly those with other responsibilities, want to hear about flexibility. They need to know how your college will enable them to fit their learning around the rest of life’s commitments.

Flexibility in the context of higher education relates to two things: how a program is delivered and when it’s delivered.

Many non-traditional students can’t adhere to a traditional college schedule and will opt for institutions that offer online or hybrid lessons and weekend/evening options.

The pandemic catalyzed online learning in higher education, with 2,500 colleges in the US now offering online programs. In order to compete in a sector that is becoming increasingly consolidated, digital capability and agility are critical.

2. Be transparent about tuition costs and highlight financial aid

Non-traditional students tend to be outcome-focused.

Ultimately, they want to know they’re getting value for money, and their credentials will accelerate their career. Transfer credits are valuable because they facilitate flexibility.

It’s useful for students to know courses taken in one program can be transferred to the equivalent at another institution, or to a different program at either the same institution or a new one.

Your college should highlight and promote any credit transfer policies, as well as any discounts, corporate partnerships, federal grants, student loans, and scholarships.

Circling back to Western Governors University’s study, Smith notes that financial resources for non-traditional students are on the rise.

“The state of Utah is addressing adult learners and non-traditional learners,” he said. “There are scholarships available and the Utah System of Higher Education is administering a program for non-traditional learners.”

Weber State University in Utah also offers scholarships for non-traditional learners. The college even has its own “non-traditional student center,” which focuses on outreach and resources for non-traditional students.

Does yours?

3. Consider your in-person campus services

Research reveals non-traditional students typically choose to enroll at institutions within 100 miles of where they live, and the majority within 40 miles.

Despite the growing prominence of online learning, the campus still has an important role to play. Campuses help build credibility: students value face-to-face learning and are usually reassured to know they can resolve any issues in person.

What hours do your campus services operate?

If they’re only open between the hours of 9 to 5, you might want to consider introducing weekend or evening options to make them more accessible for working/parent students.

If expanding the schedule isn’t viable, ensure that services are readily available online.

Chatbots can be very effective. Chatbots are accessible 24/7, making them convenient for prospective or existing international students living in different time zones too.

Colleges can configure chatbots to respond to common queries and signpost students to other services if the issue is beyond the technology’s capability.

How to communicate to non-traditional cohorts

  • Focus on the outcomes.
  • Produce inclusive content.
  • Consider the applicant journey.
  • Personalize communications.
  • Be helpful and welcoming.

Non-traditional learners respond well to outcome-focused marketing.

Think alumni testimonials, job placements, career advancement case studies, and initiatives designed to support the advancement of learners, like this one at Imperial College London:

Demonstrate what students can expect from their credentials by:

  • Outlining the roles that typically require the credentials they’re interested in studying
  • Communicating real-life alumni success stories
  • Developing career guides for each program of study

When putting together a design brief for marketing materials, whether it’s a prospectus or a social media campaign, consider that non-traditional students don’t necessarily want to imagine themselves in a classroom setting.

Use photography that shows graduates working in the career or role they progressed to after graduating from your institution. 

You also need to ensure your marketing materials accurately reflect the diversity of students at your institution. Prospective students’ first impressions are influenced by how your college portrays itself, so your content needs to represent different students and lifestyles.

Check out University of Norwich’s ‘A Week in the Life’ feature. Nestled under the ‘Student Experience’ website tab, it showcases students from differing backgrounds. Each student explains why they chose to study at the university.

Some students share a copy of their weekly schedule so prospective students can see what they can expect when it comes to establishing a work-study-life balance.

The power of personalization

It’s no good making your top-of-funnel proposition attractive if you fail to follow up.

For your non-traditional student admissions strategy to work, you need to pay some attention to the entire student journey, from the individual’s first interaction with your college to becoming an alumnus.

If you don’t focus on personalized messaging early, you’ll struggle to retain prospects through the nurturing process.

Leverage your team’s expertise and technology to create personalized, targeted campaigns with a modern CRM for higher education.

You can leverage the power of your higher education CRM to capture relevant data points, such as employment experience, study programs, and age.

Your CRM will help you build a picture of the prospective student. The more the prospect interacts with your institution, the more information the system obtains—and the more it can personalize communications.

For example, if a prospective student has started an application but hasn’t submitted it and the deadline is getting close, your CRM can send an automated email that offers information and advice on how to complete the application.

It might also refer the student to FAQs or a contact number for the admissions department.

Again, personalization should be a priority across the student lifecycle.

For instance, if a non-traditional student doesn’t turn up to a number of lectures, you can configure your CRM so that it reaches out to them via email to offer support, or get it to notify a member of your team so they can reach out personally.

Every student is an individual with different preferences and needs. From phone lines to Live Chat, always provide multiple ways for students to engage.

Welcome to the telehealth crossroads.

Ready or not, the COVID climate has ushered in the advent of digital medicine, born out of lockdown and raised in the age of post-pandemic uncertainty.

With 46% of 2020 patients pointing to safety as the chief reasoning behind their migration to telehealth services, it’s likely digital healthcare—from video visits to electronic record keeping—will continue to attract patients amid the post-COVID era.

Yet wide-scale telehealth adoption is still relatively new. Indeed, it took the arrival of the 2019 pandemic to transform the current playing field and pave the way for legal and insurance waivers, allowing clinics to bring telemedicine to the masses.

It’s only natural healthcare providers will face challenges in expanding their practices. Limited access to digital devices can present obvious roadblocks, as can genuine concerns regarding information security.

Still, the benefits of telemedicine are hard to ignore, as they can offer:

  • Expanded patient demographics
  • Budget streamlining
  • Improved operations and faster response times
  • Extended opportunities for specialist referrals/consultations

If, like many healthcare practitioners, you’ve decided avoiding the digital medicine trend is simply not an option, it’s time to start advocating for the telehealth cause.

Loudly.

And, above all, strategically.

It all starts with a plan. As with any marketing endeavor, the promotion and expansion of telehealth services will require a detailed blueprint in order to get off the ground.

Unfortunately, there’s no hard-and-fast template, as plans will differ dramatically depending on a variety of factors, including location, size of the organization, and areas of expertise.

But there are some universal best practices to consider.

If your healthcare organization finds itself on the precipice of digitized medical outreach and wants to develop a bona fide telehealth marketing plan, we’ve simplified the process by creating a list of definitive “to-dos” to get started.

1. Think scope

Before you jump headlong into the telehealth deep end: STOP. Don’t get ahead of yourself.

Your first move should be to think about the scope of your entire telemedicine enterprise. As in:

  • Which telehealth modules does your practice provide or plan to provide in the future? (Diagnostics? E-prescribing? Fitness tracking? Mental health?)
  • How many patients do you hope to treat via telehealth services?
  • How extensive do you want your marketing efforts to be?
  • Will you have a dedicated marketing team?
  • How many hours/dollars per week can be allotted for marketing projects?

These are important considerations because, as we’ve said, telehealth programs vary. Your marketing plan will need to accurately reflect your target audience, the scale of your organization, and the innovative growth you’d like to achieve.

Are you unsure how to determine your particular scale? Start by defining what “telehealth” really means to your clinic. Is it a basic onboarding of digital records? A COVID-friendly option for remote checkups? A multi-level strategy involving integrated data systems, video consultations, and prescription management?

The answers to such questions will give you a more concrete understanding of what your telehealth marketing plan should cover (and to what extent).

2. Define your success

No marketing plan can be effective without a set of measurable objectives—documented and agreed upon ahead of time. (You can’t know how well you’re doing if you don’t know what it is you want to gain.)

As such, your telehealth marketing program should come standard with a list of ideal outcomes. These can help guide and shape your efforts along the way, enabling you to maintain focus and allocate your time and energies appropriately. They’ll also provide your organization with a clear and comprehensible rubric for assessing your telehealth ROI.

Bear in mind, though, your objectives should always be twofold: they should support the growth of both your practice and your business.

When mapping out your telehealth marketing goals, be sure to consider these dual components, as their corresponding metrics for success are bound to look different.

Your marketing goals should support growth for both business and practice.

Here are some tangible objectives for each:

Clinical/Operational

  • Improved patient telehealth satisfaction rates
  • A rise in telehealth certifications among staff
  • A demonstrable reduction in wait times or in time spent filling out forms
  • An increased number of onboarded telehealth solutions
  • Marked expansion of your digital records archive

Business/Financial

  • Higher lead-to-patient conversions
  • An increase in word-of-mouth referrals
  • Improved website traffic levels
  • Increased ROI overall
  • Enhanced engagement with marketing content (emails, newsletters, text blasts, etc.)

As you fine-tune your list of objectives, be as specific as possible. For example: A simple “increase in telehealth visits” isn’t as actionable a goal as “40 new telehealth appointments per month.”

Which brings us to yet another critical point:

Always provide a timetable.

Each of your marketing aims should have a specified time frame. This will make progress easier to evaluate (and present) and will also help break-down your marketing program into more digestible assignments.

3. Know who you’re talking to

If you happen to be a seasoned marketer, you’ll be ahead of us here. If not, you can probably guess where we’re headed:

No matter the goals you’ve set, you’ll need a targeted audience to actually listen to you if you want to make any headway.

But as veteran marketers will tell you, an audience is a complex organism: it contains various subsets of people, each with different hopes, dreams, objectives, backgrounds, and health histories all their own.

Your job is to get to know these people. All of them.

Begin by reviewing your practice and carefully considering who your telehealth services are designed to help. Do you primarily serve child patients? Retirees? Candidates for behavioral health? Walk-ins? Doctors and staff experiencing pandemic burnout?

Note there will be more than one answer. If the list gets too long, try narrowing it down to a core group of desirable audience members (and set aside the rest for phase two of your marketing campaign).

Once you’ve identified your core audience, it’s time for some serious homework.

Use your patient archives and the power of almighty analytics [more on this in future installments] to research the many disparate “segments” of your audience. These segments can be categorized by demographic markers such as age or location and/or separated according to labels directly relevant to your practice (like “diabetic patients,” “patients recovering from surgery,” “cancer survivors,” “off-site specialists,” or any other designation that might prove useful).

Next, leverage your research findings to uncover (for each segment):

  • Long-term physical or mental health goals
  • Ongoing medical/professional challenges
  • Benefits your telehealth services can offer to help combat these challenges/achieve these goals
  • Any budget or logistical issues standing in the way of telehealth adoption
  • Preferred methods of information transfer (is the segment attracted to visual media? written? social?)
  • Other signature traits (to further inform your messaging)

From here, sketch an outline of each segment’s “journey,” i.e., the basic steps they’ll have to move through to get from “vaguely aware of telehealth” to “full-on telehealth adopter.” A cursory outline might look like this:

Step 1: Awareness
For new patients, this usually translates as a general interest in what telehealth is all about. For doctors, administrators, and staff, this may be the early investigative stage for onboarding telehealth solutions.

Step 2: Consideration
The point at which patients or providers begin actively researching telehealth options by reading in-depth educational materials, watching explanatory videos, etc.

Step 3: Booking/Decision
The moment the deal is sealed, and patients/providers opt to utilize telehealth services with an eye toward the long term.

As you go forward, remember your marketing will have to adapt to specific stages of the patient journey(s) at specific times. Keep these three steps front of mind to avoid sending the wrong message… or, worse, sending the right message at the wrong juncture.

It’s best to first get a sense of where your audience is so you can gauge how hard or soft a push you’ll need to make. A patient who’s still on the fence about telemedicine won’t really benefit from a detailed service price list, after all.

4. Hone your message


“The challenge is to positively differentiate your services, and communicate your leadership position, to the critical target audiences.”

                                                                        -Stewart Gandolf, CEO, Healthcare Success


As multifaceted as your marketing outreach can (and should) be, the strength of your campaign—and the development of your brand—will depend on its consistency.

In other words: Your messaging will have to demonstrate variety and uniformity at the same time.

Confused? Don’t be. All this means is that, while your methods, media, and individual messaging may change, your underlying intention and tone of voice should remain constant. 

The strength of your campaign depends on its consistency.

Before you launch your marketing plan, be 100% certain your teammates are on the same page regarding:

  • The theme of your telehealth services. What exactly does your practice offer your prospective telehealth patients/users? What makes your program unique?
  • The value you represent. What advantages can your services provide? Are they centered around safety? Finance? Convenience? 
  • The voice that best suits your telehealth solution. What characteristics do you most want to convey? Friendliness? Attentiveness? Reliability? Knowledgeability? 

Your theme, value, and voice should all be evident in every pitch you make, every personalized email you write, and every form of communication you put out there. Consistency and continuity will help establish cohesion and solidify your sense of purpose—all of which will position your telehealth practice as a trustworthy source of medical treatment and advice.

5. Gather your resources

The last crucial step before embarking on your campaign will be to get your proverbial ducks in a row.

As you close-in on launch day, itemize exactly what you’ll need to make your detailed plan a reality. Ask yourself:

“Who’ll be on my team?”

Does your healthcare system already have a marketing department you can deploy? If not, can you manage with just yourself and a few contractors? Or would a digital marketing partner be required?

“What sort of budget will I be working with?”

Realistically, what will you need to get the job done well?

“What tools should I use?”

Will you require a centralized database? Automation software? A HIPAA-compliant customer relationship management (CRM) solution? A physical office?

“How can I maintain compliance?”

Will you need to hire legal counsel? A HIPAA-compliance officer? What solutions will help align your efforts to your organization’s code of ethics?

“What media will work best?”

Will your marketing rely on digital platforms like Instagram or Facebook? Will video play a role? Will you need extra printed collateral to attract less tech-savvy patients/staff?

Whatever your answer to the last question, it’s worth remembering the one thing you cannot go without is a website.

What does a telehealth website entail? The answers are soon to come in part two of our telehealth marketing series.

This is the first of a 5-part series. You can read the others here: