If you thought it was difficult to start a new business in the education space, you'd be right. To start up in the adult education space? That's even harder.

This is unfortunate. As a country, we're in dire need of companies that provide cost-effective retraining and up-skilling programs to adult learners, whether they be career changers, new job seekers, or just folks whose skills haven't kept up with the growing technical and digital requirements of their jobs.

Having large numbers of people sitting on the sidelines because of their lack of training represents a major loss to our economy. Not only are these individuals not working but they also represent a wealth of accumulated institutional knowledge that will be lost if we can't figure out how to move them and their aggregated wisdom forward into the digital economy.

Clearly, creating more effective systems of adult education and re-skilling is critical. Yet it's especially hard, mainly for one overwhelming reason. I call it the "curse of cohorts."

School teachers--even college professors--have it easy in the cohort department. As I used to tell my faculty: Sadly, we keep getting older, while the students every year are the same age. And that's precisely the point. Our traditional education system does the selection, segmentation, and other sorting for us. The majority of students in any class are roughly the same in terms of demographics, prior experience and education, and--maybe most importantly--expectations and aspirations.

Of course, this is not to say their individual needs are the same, or that they should even be taught in the same manner. But given their ages and academic backgrounds, these students are cohorts by definition and, from a curricular perspective, can be dealt with in a fairly consistent fashion.

When you get to adult education, however, it's a vastly different ballgame. It's almost impossible to figure out who will respond to your ads or what each prospect will be expecting to get out of the class. Add the considerable confusion over outcomes, next steps, and what the extent of the actual preparation is expected to be, and it's amazing anyone can manage this process at all.

Some students expect that 12 weeks of coding instruction will turn them into entrepreneurs; others plan to immediately jump into a mid-level, high-paying programming job at a major corporation; and still others think that--with enough passion and energy--they can actually wish a real business into existence. Turning even the best ideas into invoices takes a lot more than that. In fact, the matchmaking function itself may be the absolutely hardest part of building a sustainable and profitable adult education business.

Frankly, if I had the time, I'd quickly build a national registry of the course offerings from all the different providers in every city that would be the "go-to," one-stop place to find exactly what you were looking for. It would have its own tipping-point mechanism built right in so that each specific class would move forward only after the minimum required number of interested people had actually signed up. Hard to believe that it doesn't already exist, and yet, it doesn't. But, alas, that's a subject for another day.

Right now, if you're intent on trying to help in this space, I've got plenty of scars, lots of experience, and some specific tips for you.

1. Find a Channel (Outbound)

Trying to reach a cohort of ready and qualified students that are interested in precisely your particular offering (and in a specific location and at specific times) is an expensive proposition. Customer acquisition costs are far in excess of what you can realistically charge a given student for your course offering--and you're not going to make it up in volume, either. Because unlike colleges or universities, adult courses are often one-off deals where there isn't even a way to amortize your acquisition costs over multiple sessions or courses.

You need an outbound, cost-effective communication channel to reach your targets. You want to ride on someone else's back and rely on their bucks to help you get the job done. This is a lot easier than you think--fashioning win-win partnerships these days is all the rage. In particular, membership organizations (think AAA or AARP) are all under growing pressure to demonstrate the value they provide to their members in order to retain them when so many of the things they traditionally offered to their groups are now available elsewhere and often at no cost. So find yourself a free ride--associations, membership organizations, alumni groups, etc.--and choose the ones most closely aligned to your offerings and see what happens. 

2. Find a Feeder (Inbound)

A staggering number of traditional schools (high schools, colleges, and universities) aren't giving their graduates the concrete, practical skills they need to secure the jobs that are being created in the digital economy. We need more vocational training at every level of the education chain. This is the precise niche that high-end, technical adult education programs can fill if we regard them as education extenders rather than as places for grownups to occasionally pursue their hobbies.

The traditional schools aren't going to get around to changing their programs any time soon (the community colleges are actually beating them to the punch). But their students (and graduates) are starting to get the picture, and they make great targets for these kinds of programs even before they're officially done with school. It's easier than you would imagine to get the word out about what you're doing on college campuses--and much, much less expensive than other channels.

Keep in mind that professors have considerable sway. An endorsement from a professor who can vouch for your product can be invaluable. Having a few professors pitch your programs is worth a lot more than persistent emails or piles of pamphlets at the student union.

3. Find a Food Chain (Upward Bound)

The single most discouraging thing I hear from the graduates of so many of these short-term courses is this: Now that they have made the investment and spent the time to learn the material, they don't know where to go or what to do next--either because the actual training they've received didn't include all the skills necessary to move forward in their job search or because there's no placement support from the training provider to help them take the next critical steps.

Now I realize that, as good as your intentions may be, you can't do everything for people. You can't push them forward all by yourself. But it's up to you to show them that there is a path to success--and it's your job to not only give them the skills needed to get there but to help them define this path. Let your students know that it's manageable as long as they're willing to make the effort.

I realize that most people offering these courses aren't even equipped (and they certainly don't have the necessary time and/or resources) to run a placement service. So if you can't do it yourself, it's critically important to become a feeder to the organizations that need the very people you're training. They're not only the logical employers, they're also equipped to fill in the gaps. You inexpensively source qualified people for them; they finish the process for you. It's a win-win.

Published on: Apr 14, 2015