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How Generation Z College Students Are Changing Higher Education

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2021-01-06T19:17:46+00:00January 06, 2021|

Up until the last several years, the typical high school senior was certain of at least a few things. They were sure that obtaining a degree was a worthwhile investment. They were also assured they could find career success regardless of which field they chose as their primary area of study.

But as Generation Z learners, those born sometime in the mid-1990s through about 2012, enter their college-going years, it’s clear that a different mindset is now prevailing. These “traditional” college students are anything but. Today’s prospects are far more skeptical of higher education – they want proof that pursuing a degree will be worth it in the long run.

Because there are so many institutions to choose from, students are in a position to shop around like never before. To remain competitive, schools are having to adjust to meet the expectations of Generation Z college students. And the entire higher education experience is changing as a result.

6 ways Generation Z college students are changing higher education

Now that Generation Z is attending (or thinking of enrolling in) college, everything from program offerings to institutional priorities are evolving. Take a look at some of the most notable shifts they’ve driven over the last several years.

1. Programs are more career-focused than ever

College used to be seen as a time to explore – to focus on passions that weren’t necessarily pointing toward a specific career path. Students felt like they could take their time to figure out what they wanted to do for a living, even if that meant pursuing a job opportunity that was entirely unrelated to their undergraduate major. Attitudes have certainly changed.

According to a survey conducted by ECMC Group and VICE Media, 74 percent of polled high school students say they think an education that focuses on developing hard skills – like those related to nursing or science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) – makes sense. Additionally, more than 50 percent of respondents say they’re open to pursuing something other than a four-year bachelor’s degree to prepare for their futures.

The desire to gain skills that can prepare them for a stable career is already playing out in the first few Gen Z cohorts to graduate from college. Our 2020 program analysis shows that there’s growth among bachelor’s degrees awarded in healthcare, science and technology. For instance, the number of bachelor’s degrees in computer science increased by about 14,000 from 2014 to 2018.

2. Sophisticated technology solutions are now necessary

Generation Z students are the first true digital natives to attend college. This means they’re incredibly tech-savvy and expect schools to similarly embrace technology. Nielsen research indicates that 97 percent of Gen Z individuals own smartphones, so it’s safe to assume they want to access everything from campus maps to course materials using these mobile devices. This certainly explains why a growing number of institutions have released simple, easy-to-use mobile apps.

Generation Z students want the latest technology to be incorporated into their classroom experiences as well. A report from Barnes & Noble College indicates these learners crave interactive experiences and see a lot of value in tools like digital textbooks, online videos and game-based learning.

3. Tuition pricing is evolving

While increasing tuition prices have always been concerning for students, Generation Z is particularly wary of how much it costs to obtain a degree. Research indicates they’re more worried about being able to afford their education and less willing to accumulate debt that millennials.

Today’s students simply want education that’s more affordable. Given that more and more learners are flocking to large institutions that are known for providing comparatively low-cost options, it seems students are getting their way. It’s also important to note that many of these large schools, often called “mega-universities,” are completely rethinking their tuition models. Some examples include subscription pricing, monthly payment plans and charging a flat rate that’s inclusive of all fees and additional costs.

4. Diversity and inclusion are becoming top priorities

The students starting college today are more diverse than ever before. The Pew Research Center reveals that only 52 percent of Gen Z students are white, a stark difference from previous generations. They’re also more likely to value gender identity equity and have a favorable view of societal change.

What this means for colleges and universities is that it’s no longer sufficient to talk about the value of diversity and inclusion – students want to see actual progress in the form of initiatives and organizations. Some institutions have made progress by creating distinct departments or joining multi-school alliances to promote diversity and inclusion.

5. Living off-campus is no longer unusual

Online learning has long been viewed as the go-to option for adult learners, but it’s steadily been growing in popularity among younger students as well. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) shows the portion of undergraduate students between the ages of 15 and 23 who participate in any online courses increased from just 12 percent in in 2004 to 37 percent in 2016.

It’s also worth considering that not all Generation Z students attending in-person classes will live in the residence halls. Attending a traditional program doesn’t necessarily equate to living on campus. One survey indicates that nearly 20 percent of Generation Z college students who plan to attend an in-state school intend to live at home and commute to campus.

6. Mental health services are seen as essential

Generation Z college students are keenly aware of mental health issues. According to a recent survey, 70 percent of teenagers report that anxiety and depression are major issues among people their age. While the actual prevalence of mental health problems might not actually be significantly greater than it was among previous generations, today’s college students are certainly more aware of psychological problems and more open to seeking available resources.

As students have made their emotional and psychological needs known, institutions have responded by ramping up their mental health services. Depending on the school, students may be able to make use of counseling, group therapy, workshops, yoga and a variety of other wellness-focused offerings.

Evolve with your students

Now that digital natives account for such a large share of the prospective student pool, higher education institutions need to think about whether they’re adjusting accordingly. Schools must provide the type of experience Generation Z college students demand, or those learners will simply move on. There are plenty of other options out there.

Providing an exceptional student experience is clearly essential, and it actually starts before a prospective student even starts filling out an application. Learn more about how to effectively engage with today’s learners by reading our article “Communicating with College Students: Adapting Your Admissions Approach for Gen Z.”

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About the Author
Christine Skopec
Christine Skopec is a senior content specialist for Collegis Education. She holds a Master of Science in Journalism from the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University.