For the majority of the last two decades, colleges and universities have been catering their efforts towards millennials, and they have had a lot of success understanding how to recruit and keep millennial students at their institutions. However, many campus leaders are not aware of the mindset of the new generation (born between 1995-2010) that is approaching their college years or already in them, Generation Z. Many still talk about undergraduates as if they were the typical millennial, but Generation Z has their own set of ideas and their wants and needs have shifted dramatically. Growing up during the Great Recession, an era of school shootings, and protests over police brutality, Generation Z is one of the most diverse generations in modern American history. In order for university leaders to reach this new cohort of prospective students and retain them each year, they need to first understand what makes Generation Z different. As a recent Generation Z college graduate, I can help give a little insight on the values and characteristics of the generation and how their experiences have affected their opinions on higher education.
Many Generation Z students believe that higher education is important. However, they place a lot of their attention on value, especially because they are overwhelmed by the cost of college. Instead of millennial students and their baby boomer parents who were willing to pay more tuition for better amenities, the new generation is very concerned about taking on more debt, and are much more willing to question the value of a degree. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, this skepticism and need to be fiscally conservative stems from these students seeing their parents struggle during the Great Recession. And, many have witnessed their older siblings and friends remain unemployed for months, or maybe even years after graduation. This has led Generation Z to have much lower expectations and an idea that a college degree is not relevant to success, or worth the cost (which, according to the College Board, tuition steadily increases by less than 2% every year). The fear of financial distress and not knowing if they will have a secure job after graduation has many questioning the relevance of the material they are learning in school, wondering how they are supposed to apply it to their future careers. A Harris Poll & Pearson study from 2018 found that only 29% of students believe that their assignments will prepare them for the future. Generation Z wants to learn real-life practical skills and they place a lot of value on hands-on experiences like internships. A 2014 Northeastern University study found that not only do 67% of Generation Z students indicate that their top concern is being able to afford college, but that 79% of them would like to integrate their higher education experience with employer internships. Today, these percentages of students have surely increased with the Covid-19 pandemic due to lockdowns and social distancing. Americans are struggling financially and universities have transitioned to virtual learning, leading more and more students to not only worry about paying tuition, but they are missing out on those interactive learning experiences. Many students are wondering why they should have to wait for their employers to train them in the career they want. If they choose to take on a massive amount of debt from a four-year college institution, they want to be completely prepared from internships and ready to start a career when they graduate. Corey Seemiller, co-author of Generation Z Goes to College says that Generation Z “still see(s) value in a college education, but they are doing a cost-benefit analysis to determine if what they will pay is worth the investment.” This is why many are open to taking alternative routes to a traditional four-year degree, and leaders in higher education need to learn how to convince them otherwise.
According to HERI’s national survey of freshman, the number one reason that students attended college from the 1980’s to the early 2000’s was to learn about things that interested them. Then, beginning in 2008, that idea changed. For the last decade, students reported that they only attend college in order to find a better job. Rather than seeing college as a time to explore and broaden interests, Generation Z would rather use these four years to prepare for life and a specific career. Generation Z seems to desire practical skills and is very entrepreneurial, leading more and more students to be drawn to careers that are not necessarily in the traditional job market. It is shown through national data that the percentage of students majoring in humanities (English, history, philosophy, and foreign language) has decreased from 8 to 5 percent in the last decade. Some of the most popular majors that students are choosing to study now are health professions, computer science, engineering, biological science, and sports medicine. These are practical majors with straight forward paths to careers in rapidly growing industries. In addition, Generation Z is more willing to forge their own paths compared to the last generation. The before mentioned 2014 Northeastern University study also found that 63% of Generation Z students believe it’s important for colleges to teach entrepreneurship and 42% expect to work for themselves at some point in their career, which is nearly quadrupled the percentage of Americans who are actually self-employed. Students today want college to be customized to their needs. That is why 72% of students also said that they would prefer to design their own course of study unique to their career plans. This brings us back to the point that Generation Z is constantly making that cost/value comparison mentioned above. They feel that many of the classes that are required for them to take do not pertain to their future career. So, in their opinion, why should they spend their time and money on them? When it comes down to making the decision to attend college, Generation Z’s main concern is practicality and value. How will higher education ensure them job security and will it help them advance in the career they desire?
It is no surprise, but Generation Z is the first generation to have grown up totally invested in the world of technology and social media. Whereas, millennials had to transition into it in their late teens and early twenties, this year’s incoming freshmen were able to navigate a smartphone or tablet by the age of seven. Growing up in a world where information is so readily available, Generation Z expects instant answers, and they believe that they can always find something better online. It is no wonder that a lot of Gen Z students are questioning the importance of higher education. If they feel that a professor is boring and hard to understand, they can most likely find someone on YouTube who is more interesting and can teach the same information with better graphics. With the influence of social media, Generation Z also puts a lot of emphasis on peer reviewed content. The NACAC (The National Association for College Admission Counseling) has described Generation Z as students who rely “on the opinions of their peers more than admission or school counselors when it comes to selecting a college.” That is why it is so important for admissions to use social media to reach students. Unlike millennials who relied on Facebook as their go-to social media outlet, Generation Z is all about Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, and TikTok. This is a generation that cares about authenticity, which is better seen through videos and pictures. Admissions needs to learn how to utilize these platforms and position themselves as innovators of technology to gain this generation’s attention.
It is not enough for recruiters to know how to relate to 18 to 20 year olds, they need to be able to understand and adjust to the values and needs of each generation that arises. Now, with a better idea of Generation Z’s opinion on higher education, admissions and recruitment can find new ways to keep these prospective students engaged. Leaders in higher education should constantly reassess the interests of current and prospective students. And not only do they need to adapt to those wants and needs, but also adjust their communication styles to meet them.