The Physics of Adult Student Marketing: Newton was a Marketer

by Jeff Ebbing
Southeastern Community College
West Burlington, IA

I don’t know about you, but my college is starting to feel like junior high. Everyone here looks like they’re 12.  When did that happen? There used to be a time when I could walk down the halls and run into an actual high school classmate who had decided to go back to college. Not anymore. The only gray hair I see these days are ponytails on trendy 18-year-old girls.

So where have all the adult students gone? Easy. In this new economy of record-low unemployment, they’re at work.

We used to be able to rely on factory closings and downsizings to drive anxious adults to our doors desperate to retool. Today though, factories are opening instead of closing. Yay?

Even with tons of jobs to be had, there are still just as many people who would benefit from a college education. The sad fact is for many working adults, going to college for a better payday tomorrow can’t compete with getting a mediocre job that pays now.

Don’t these idiots know that we’re the answer to all their ills? Can’t the see that someone with the right skills can pretty much write their own ticket – and we’re handing out the pens?

What’s a community college marketer to do?

While our departments have focused on the good ol’ four P’s to lure prospects to our doors, perhaps we should take a page from another department: Physics.

It turns out that adult students, being made of matter, are subject to Isaac Newton’s Laws of Motion. Yeah, the dude who sat under the apple tree and invented calculus. If we apply his laws to our recruiting programs, science says adults will end up in our classrooms.

Over the next three posts (or what I like to call the “Marketing Guy Trilogy”), prepare to have your mind blown as I reveal how these three simple laws hiding in plain sight for 350 years can unlock the enigma that is adult student recruitment.

Disclaimer: I am not a licensed physician. In fact, I’m actually barred from operating simple machines in certain parts of Ohio. But just work with me here.


Newton’s first law states that an object at rest will stay at rest unless another force acts upon it.

In physics, you’re either moving or you’re not.

Many people are just stuck in jobs they don’t like but aren’t motivated enough to do anything about it.

Don’t confuse this with being lazy though. Marketers call it indifference, fancy pants prefer malaise, and kids just say, “meh.” Science defines it as inertia.

For these people, sticking with an unfulfilling job is like having a tire with a slow leak. They know they should fix it but that would require taking time off work, figuring out what to do with the kids, and getting the car to the shop. This assumes they’ve got the cash to pay for it.

With all the hassle, it’s just easier to keep adding air and hope it doesn’t get any worse.

It’s true that you will never reach everyone. Some, however, only need a wee bit of coaxing to fix that pesky tire for good.

Apply force, as Newton would say.

They know your school exists but that might be about it. Fill that blank slate with intentional messaging about how you’re the means to get the job they want.

Get their wheels turning:

  1. Be relevant. Don’t rattle off laundry lists of programs. Do your targeting homework. Speak their language and frame your message to fit their context. Hold the mirror up for them to look into and show them the possibilities. You have to help them overcome their own mental objections before they’re open to even considering solutions.
  2. Be persistent. Don’t expect to say something once or twice or even 100 times and be heard. It took a long time for them to end up in their current situation. It’s going to take a long time to convince them to get out of it. The average adult takes over a year to decide to go to school so be prepared for a slow dance. Relax, wear comfortable shoes and cue up the Air Supply.
  3. Be where they are. Use that research from step one to figure out where they spend their time and take your message to them: advertising, social media, news stories, community outreach. Leverage the unique power of each avenue to tell the same collective story.

Inertia is a powerful, yet overcomable force (yes, it’s a word). The key lies in understanding it. Once you know how they got stuck, you can figure out how to get them unstuck.

How do you get them unstuck? This is where I insert what we writers call a cliffhanger device.

Tune in for the next exciting installment, “The Physics of Adult Student Marketing: Use the Force,” and I’ll tell you. Or will I?

Jeff Ebbing is the director of marketing and communications at Southeastern Community College in West Burlington, Iowa, and NCMPR’s District 5 director.


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