Gen Z: The Future of Higher Education

Generation Z is moving in…to the dorms. As the higher-ed industry attempts to stay ahead of the curve to appeal to potential students and future alumni, they need only start by assessing the challenges faced by their own incoming freshmen. The oldest members of the newest generation (born after 1995) have headed off to college, but getting there hasn’t exactly been half the fun.

In a long and tenuous road that leads up to these formative years, Gen Z students are faced with numerous decisions – what schools to consider, public or private, commute or live on campus, scholarship or student loans?

Then there’s the thought of what to major in. Unlike Millennials, who have long been criticized as passive and distractible meanderers, Gen Z-ers are laser-focused in their education and career goals. A growing number of students are taking college courses early in order to get a jump start on their credits. Many high school seniors and college freshmen are joining affinity clubs, networking with recent alumni and developing relationships that could help them land their first full-time job.

Students participating in our 2015 Gen Z Study also expressed concern for the inflated costs of tuition and fees. Families that spend most of their money on the oldest child’s tuition find that they’re financially strapped by the time the younger sibling is ready to apply. Struggling under the weight of tuition increases that consistently outpace inflation, many teens and families now have to worry about the growing “Second child, Second college choice” phenomenon, on top of everything else.

That being said, the college wage premium has persisted. And the teenagers are not deterred. On the contrary, Gen Z’s response to this tension – of increased demand for education and rising financial costs – has been to gain more control over and visibility into their education planning process. Teens today want to choose their degree carefully, understand clearly what jobs it opens up and acquire it at minimal cost. According to a study conducted by Northeastern University nearly 3 out of 4 students expressed a desire to design their own course of study or major in college.


Designing a New Future for Higher Education
Given Gen Z’s demand to take control of their life, new courses like Stanford’s ‘Designing Your Life’ are creating an interesting opportunity within higher education. In his recent Fast Company interview, Bill Burnett, the executive director of Stanford’s design program, says the goal of the course is to change higher education by reintroducing methods of “forming you into the person that will go out into the world, effect change, and be a leader.”  The course uses design thinking techniques, and challenges students to design their future. Burnett believes, “you can’t know the future, but you can know what’s available and you can prototype different versions of the you that you might become.”

As the higher-ed industry envisions its future, addressing the needs of today’s student is key. Connecting with Gen Z provides the insight schools need to evolve, and appeal to prospective families. Understanding this group is a critical component of designing programs that will foster continued support pursuant of advanced degrees, distinguish universities, and keep schools competitive in a saturated market.

Click here to check out our full report on Generation Z.

Karuna Harishanker

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Karuna Harishanker