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A guide to covering Gen-Z and higher ed

October 20, 2016

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Gen Z is approaching higher education with a very different set of standards and outlooks. (Image by TPSDave via Pixabay)
Gen Z is approaching higher education with a very different set of standards and outlooks. (Image by TPSDave via Pixabay)

Millennials are old news. Generation Z, comprised of people born roughly from 1996 to 2011, is fresh on the college landscape and institutions must adapt to stay in business. Zers have their own priorities that will dictate what college they attend and how much they are willing to pay. Here are some of the biggest trends.

Decision making

Studies by Eduventures and Barnes & Noble claim that Gen Z students are making decisions differently than previous generations. The percentage of teens relying heavily on their parents for college advice is 48 percent, compared to Generation Y’s 55 percent. Instead, they rely more on peers to give them unfiltered, transparent information. Gen Zers are highly skeptical and will quickly fact-check the authenticity of marketing efforts. Colleges are recognizing this trend by cutting down on flashy advertising and providing prospective students with more opportunities to talk to current students. Although parents are still important, marketing may not be directed as strongly towards them.

Defined results

Experts have speculated as to whether students would be willing to pay high tuition in a time when many graduates are still unable to find jobs. However, a 2014 Pew study showed that although debt is high, a college degree is financially more important than ever. The gap in wages between those with a high-school and a college education has skyrocketed: 22 percent of Millennials with only a high-school education are living in poverty as opposed to 6 percent of those with a college education. Studies show that results are more important than cost to Gen Z. The generation has been described as extremely practical and is looking for degrees that will give a high return. Risk-averse Gen Zers are less willing than Millennials to gamble on a degree that may not lead to a stable, well-paying job. They are also less likely to be interested in community service and social issues. This may mean a change in focus for college programs.

Associate degree decline

Associate degrees once led to salaries that fell between those of high school graduates and college-educated young adults. Lately, the wage gap has been closing. As young adults, Generation Xers with an associate’s degree earned only $4,000 more than their peers with a high school education; for Millennials that gap is only $2,000. There is also a trend towards job growth in areas that require elevated educational requirements. It is yet to be determined whether pragmatic Generation Zers  will see value in an associate’s degree. A possible new role for community colleges is that of a two-year “starter school” before students transfer to a four-year college to complete their bachelor’s degree.

Integrated technology

Generation Zers are billed as the first true technology natives. Unlike Millennials, these students have never known a world without computers, cell phones and the internet at their fingertips. They expect to see truly integrated education technology in their programs. Not only this, but they are using social media to help inform them about colleges and degrees. According to Chegg research two thirds of high schoolers say social media helps them make decisions about college.  

Reporter’s Takeaway:

• See what your local college is doing to attract the next generation of students. Ask if they are making changes to marketing or technology and what response they have received.

• Look at a nearby community college to find out how the lack of opportunities for associate degrees is affecting programing. Has there been a move to transfer their students to four-year schools?

• Research academic programs to see if there has been any shift in focus. Have institutions changed which programs are receiving extra funding or improved facilities? How might these be linked to the goals of Generation Z?


  • Jenna Miller

    Jenna is a journalist and videographer residing in West Philadelphia. She’s previously worked for Delaware Online and the Salisbury Daily Times, both part of the USA Today Network. She aims to create thoughtful, community-centered work. Jenna graduat...

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