Gen Z leery of 4-year degree paths, surveys show

What colleges and universities can do to reach a generation of students affected by the pandemic and the myriad options they have in furthering their education.

How intent are high school students on pursuing four-year degrees?

According to a new report from Minnesota-based ECMC Group and VICE Media, only 25% of the 3,000 Generation Z teenagers they surveyed believe the traditional college model is the only pathway to getting a good job.

Only about half of those polled said they are likely to pursue a four-year plan. With their options increasing and with uneasiness over their own financial futures growing because of the pandemic, this next wave of education seekers is poised to have vastly different outcomes than their predecessors.

“High school students and their families have faced a great deal of change in their lives over the past year, which is translating into uncertainty as they look to their career paths,” said Jeremy Wheaton, president and CEO of ECMC Group, a nonprofit dedicated to student success. “While this shift in mindset isn’t surprising, it is up to us as leaders and mentors to educate learners about their future opportunities, which includes raising awareness about the variety of postsecondary options that are available.”

Those options include career and technical education and apprenticeships but also include a more staggered approach to education and lifelong learning that could help them better position themselves for jobs in a digital economy and avoid potentially big costs of a four-year degree.

According to the ECMC surveys – three that were done from just before the pandemic until this January – the top concerns of Gen Z students when considering their educational futures were costs (50% are wary of having too much debt) and landing a solid job (44%). Another 44% fear they will not have the skills they needed once hired.

Those likely are not much different from previous generations. However, Gen Z seems more poised to act on its convictions, having seen the effects of the pandemic on families and having seen the debt accumulated by Millennials who chose those traditional paths. Gen Z also knows it will be presented with new opportunities to get education in smaller bites, as companies press for more digitally skilled workers and institutions try to meet those needs and the wishes of the next wave of talent.

“While the insights we uncovered illustrate a high level of indecision, they also demonstrate that today’s teens are using a critical eye when it comes to analyzing their options and charting their future course,” said Wheaton. “We must take this opportunity to hear their concerns and provide pathways that will meet their educational needs now and into the future.”

The pandemic’s impact cannot be understated. While more than 50% of students surveyed say they are worried about their future, a staggering one third say the financial fallout of the pandemic has made it unlikely they will pursue a four-year degree.

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center provided perhaps a glimpse of that in its reporting on freshman enrollment during the past year, as numbers tumbled some 13% from 2019. In the state of California, it was more than 20%. There is deep concern that underserved students and those from low-income areas will simply choose to go straight into jobs, if they can find them. A quarter of students in the ECMC surveys say they probably won’t “pursue any education beyond high school.”

So what can be done to solve these problems. The Gen Z students surveyed said they want policymakers and business leaders to be much more involved in providing financial assistance. Some 40-50% believe the government should either offer additional money to pay off student loans, pay off debt or pay for college altogether. More than one third say companies themselves should not only provide education for students but pay for their loans as well.

Colleges and universities have a tough task swaying the mindset of Gen Z, beyond simply incentivizing students through the lowering of tuition and increasing financial aid. The College Marketing Group offers some excellent tips on reaching the next generation and showing the value that an education – and yes, even a four-year path – can provide.

  • CMG leaders say it is important to find students on social media channels and connect with them there. They say videos are the way to get through to Gen Z, which makes sense given the amount of video content they consume.
  • Quick sound bytes with captioning expressing the value of the college right away in those videos is important. And they say “be real” … in other words Gen Z can easily see through messages that aren’t genuine or are too general.
  • Put current students in front of the camera. Gen Z students are more likely to be able to relate to them than say an older faculty member, unless of course that faculty person happens to have a huge sphere of influence in the digital space.
  • Be transparent about costs and about the mission of your school and how that fits with them and their generation. Tout what your college and university can do to prepare them for the next wave of jobs. And again, avoid generalizations when doing so.
Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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