A Mobile Decision: How US Students Return to Higher Education

The decision to pursue higher education isn’t just for students about to graduate from high school. It can happen at any time, in any place. And increasingly, it’s happening in later life.

Indeed, college enrollment for students between the ages of 25 and 34 increased 52% between 1998 and 2012 in the US, and is projected to increase by another 23% by 2023.1

As college enrollment rises for returning students, mobile usage is rising consistently across generations. So much so that we got to thinking: What’s the role of mobile devices in a modern student’s higher education decisions?

To find out, we started by analyzing our own data. Who on Facebook is interested in higher education, and what are their other interests? Our study included people on Facebook with an apparent affinity for higher education based on Page likes, profile data and who they follow. We were able to identify seven distinct groups, each unique in their relationship to higher education.

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While the personas are distinct in terms of interests and entertainment preferences, one similarity struck us: 73% of the people with an interest in higher education on Facebook are more than 24 years old.2 And, equally surprising, they share commonalities in terms of what they talk about on the platform. We looked at the types of conversations Facebook users are having around finishing school, choosing a school or pursuing a new career. Posts about graduation or making a career change saw the most engagement, and “nursing school,” master’s degree” and “career change” were the most talked-about topics.3

With so many Older Millennials and Gen Xers renewing a commitment to education later in life, we wanted to take a deeper look at what matters to students in the US who left a traditional education path but returned to continue their studies later in life (“Returning Students”). We conducted a survey to understand more about Returning Students.

Back to school with phone in hand

What we found was illuminating: mobile phones play an important role in the decision to return to school. 77% of surveyed people who left higher education but returned to it later in life cite their mobile phone as helpful to their decision to go back.4 Students said their mobile phone as important when researching schools, communicating with friends and family about education decisions, and even communicating with the schools themselves.4

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Returning Students also use digital platforms to find inspiration from their family and social groups. Survey respondents indicated that they are more likely than traditional students to be influenced by friends and family when making a decision to go back to school.4

Returning Students have unique demands

Returning Students often have busy work schedules and families—responsibilities that they have to consider when making the decision to return to school. Many survey respondents still believe higher education is unattainable because of time constraints, with 40% of respondents saying they see an inflexible schedule as a reason to leave school.4

Students use mobile devices to search for schools
For parents specifically, an inflexible schedule can make or break their ability to manage class times and their own homework assignments along with their children’s. Among surveyed parents, 89% say they are pursuing higher education in part because they found a program with a flexible schedule.4 Parents are also 3.19x more likely than non-parents to say they are returning to school because their job is supporting them.4

As we recently explored in our Meet the Parents study, parents overindex on mobile usage. By looking at activity on our own platforms, we can see that parents in the US spend 1.3x more time than non-parents on Facebook mobile.5 So it comes as no surprise that parents returning to school are 1.37x more likely than non-parents to feel comfortable with schools they have seen on Facebook or Instagram.4

STEM students embrace digital

Returning Students of all disciplines use digital to make higher education decisions, but this is especially true for Returning Students studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics. STEM students trust digital platforms more for research and are more likely to look to their mobile devices for important information about school.4

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Returning STEM students also view online courses more favorably. Interestingly, 91% of surveyed STEM students say they would take an online course even if it didn’t result in a degree.4 They’re also less likely than surveyed students of any other discipline to believe higher education is too expensive, with only 43% reporting the cost as an issue.4

What it means for marketers

Center your campaign around mobile
Returning Students are making decisions on mobile, so your campaign should be centered around mobile first. Clear, engaging photography and video showcasing different features of the school will be critical for prospective students making a decision about which school to attend. Allow students to respond to your campaign on their mobile device, and use messenger apps to cultivate 1-on-1 relationships with prospective students.

Tailor your message to the student
When building your campaign, defined segments can be more effective than broad-brush marketing. Speaking empathetically to the interests and concerns of each group can strengthen your message. When targeting Returning Students and especially parents, educate them on the availability of flexible schedules. Area of study should also be considered; when speaking to STEM students, focus on the availability of online courses instead of cost-based messaging.

1Projections of Education Statistics to 2023” by US Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, Apr 2016.
2Facebook data, ages 18+, US only, May 2016. The most current self-reported and inferred data were used in combination with a proprietary method of assessing affinity to identify people with interest in Higher Education.
3Facebook data, ages 18+ in the US, May 2014–Jul 2015. Research included 3 groups: new parents (expecting a child or with a child under age 1); parents of school-age children (ages 4–12); and parents of teens (ages 13–19). Self-reported and inferred data were used in combination with a proprietary method of assessing affinity to identify parents.
4“Drive Me to School” by Facebook IQ (Qualtrics-fielded survey of 496 men and women ages 18–70 in the US who have attended College or Advanced University), Jul 2016.