Once upon a time, conversations about education revolved around the needs of millennials, but Generation Z college students have arrived and with them the potential to reshape the four-year experience. Gen Z learners are those born after 1996, and they are the cohort currently graduating from high school and facing decisions about investing in a college experience.
Like previous generations, Gen Z students have specific needs and learning preferences shaped by evolving societal expectations and technology advancements. We’ll take a closer look at the characteristics of Generation Z students and how those factors influence not just today’s four-year degree programs but tomorrow’s college marketing and recruitment strategies.
How Generation Z college students are different
Perceptions of each generation are too often shaped by cliches, and Generation Z students are no different. The suggestion that Generation Z is addicted to their smartphones, reliant on social media, and dependent on their parents will sound eerily familiar to millennials. While age groups aren’t monoliths, certain demographics and trends can get beyond cliches to tell us about the unique challenges Generation Z students face.
Generation Z college cohorts are more diverse than their predecessors
Nearly half of post-millennial students are racial or ethnic minorities, and by 2026, it’s expected the next generation will be a majority of non-white students. Currently, one out of every four Gen Z students are Hispanic, followed by 14% who are Black and 6% who are Asian. Today’s college students are also more likely to hail from urban areas and be more well-educated than their predecessors.
Like millennials, Generation Z college students live with their parents
During the pandemic, it was widely reported that a majority of young adults were living with their parents. In truth, this is a trend that presented itself before coronavirus and has stayed consistent from millennials through Generation Z. Today’s college-age students are more likely to live with their parents and for longer stretches than previous generations.
Generation Z students grew up entirely in the age of the internet
The internet has shaped our lives in profound ways, but perhaps none have felt the effects as much as Generation Z. They were born as the world wide web and smartphones were truly becoming ubiquitous and have lived their entire lives with modern technology. Social media specifically is the cornerstone of how they communicate and forge relationships.
Generation Z students are more likely to report mental health concerns
A 2018 report from the American Psychology Association raised the alarm that only 45% of Generation Z students reported themselves to be in good or excellent mental health compared with 56% of millenials. Primary stressors for Generation Z included mass shootings, suicide rates and climate change. It’s certain the health concerns and economic challenges of the pandemic have only added to this Pandora's box of worries.
Generation Z students have specific learning preferences
The characteristics that define Generation Z college students have driven a set of specific learning preferences. Understanding how these students prefer to learn and what environments they thrive in can help inform both college recruitment strategy and a better college experience.
Generation Z college students are pragmatic
As tuition costs rise, both students and their parents are worried that degrees don’t hold the same value they did for previous generations. In the face of mounting student loan debt, Generation Z college students want to make sure their college pays off as an investment by focusing on the acquisition of practical, career-focused learning.
Modern college students expect flexible learning models
You’d assume that the newest generation of college students who cut their teeth on YouTube would lean into virtual education. However, surveys indicate Generation Z college students are skeptical that remote learning can provide what they need to succeed in the workplace. Increasingly, Gen Z students prefer hybrid models that combine world-class online learning environments with in-person engagement.
Generation Z wants to move at their own pace
While the latest generation of college students is quite comfortable with virtual learning, they prefer opportunities for independent work, project-based learning and a self-paced curriculum. Accustomed to having a wealth of knowledge at their fingertips, Generation Z college students are more focused on acquiring the soft skills that employers view as increasingly essential.
How to adapt education for Generation Z college students
Attracting Generation Z college students isn’t just about updating your university branding and getting visibility on social media channels. It’s also about carefully considering the challenges Generation Z college students face and how you can support them with a better four-year degree experience.
Get serious about community and inclusion
The diversity of Generation Z demands that educational institutions invest extra effort in creating an inclusive and welcoming environment. If you want today’s college students to call your campus home, communicate support and devote resources to establishing safe communities for racial and ethnic minorities as well as LGBTQ populations. Generation Z is full of seasoned activists who believe there are no shortcuts to being a trusted ally, so be prepared to do the work.
Build more value into degree programs
Selling Generation Z college students on the burden of student loans means providing more bang for the buck in a four-year experience. Think expanding internship opportunities, career placement services, and classes that provide plenty of hands-on learning experience. A network of engaged alumni can also help students get their foot in the door of that dream job.
Diversify the learning model
The pandemic drove many education institutions to expand remote learning. Now that the virtual infrastructure exists, colleges should use it to develop better hybrid-learning models that blend remote, in-person and experimental classes into a flexible learning model Generation Z students will appreciate.
Support services are crucial
Generation Z students need more support services than many campuses provide. College budgets should invest in expanding mental health services and offering holistic wellness programs that benefit students both in-person and at a distance. Considering how to better support mental health and wellness in high-stress degree programs is also a must.
Graduate to better, more immersive technology
Speaking of budgets, limping along on last year’s tech isn’t going to cut it with Generation Z. Start investing in virtual reality, esports communities, and learning spaces designed to accommodate immersive experiences. Generation Z college students are mobile. Make sure your technology can keep up.
Give Gen Z’s parents more opportunities for involvement
Generation Z increasingly lives at home with their parents, so leverage those relationships to form a system of support for students and create a healthier college community. While it may pose some challenges for colleges up-front, studies show the long-term payoff on parental involvement is more stability and a better chance of success for students.
Providing an exceptional four-year experience to Generation Z college students will force educational institutions to navigate a different roadmap than the one used for millennials. But setting aside cliches and approaching the challenges students face with compassion is well worth the effort to recruit the most well-educated and diverse generation of college students in history.