Reaching Gen Z: Action steps colleges can take to ensure they are interested

Modern Campus survey shows high schoolers are invested in postsecondary education but have concerns about ROI.
By: | August 5, 2022
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In a recent survey done by researchers at Modern Campus, more than 85% of high school students said they are committed to trying to attain college degrees even though more than half of them don’t believe it will be worth it. So how can colleges and universities show them that what lies ahead will be both a positive and fruitful experience?

In its report, Serving the Virtual Consumer: Exceeding High School Student Expectations in 2022, the teams at Modern Campus and enrollment consultant Ruffalo Noel Levitz revealed some striking features about Gen Z’s habits along with the many factors that sway decisions on institutions they’re interested in. The most notable, of course, is the assurance that colleges provide critical pathways to jobs of the future. Not only do 65% of them say they want to be market ready when they graduate, half of them “expect” to have a career position lined up.

“They want clear ROI—they evaluate their post-high school options by analyzing their investment on higher education and the return on it,” the authors noted. “Not only do their uncertainties need to be addressed, but they also need to be well advised on their educational pathways, and the career journeys that follow.”

Given their lean into digital and devices, students are beginning those journeys far sooner than their previous generations. According to the study, 60% are planning for postsecondary education before they hit the 10th grade. They are spending Fridays and some weekends searching out schools that might be a fit and taking virtual tours. Many of those who are scoring the best are looking at out-of-state options, perhaps an entry point for private institutions that are struggling with applications and enrollments but have yet to expand their reach.

“This is a generation of true digital natives; they think and live online,” said Brian Kibby, chief executive officer at Modern Campus. “Understanding the factors that drive their decision-making—job outcomes, access to co-curricular activities, cost and program quality—can help colleges and universities tailor their marketing and communications mix to be responsive to learner and parent expectations.”

Think young students are solely focused on academics and relevant pathways? Think again. Those in the ninth grade are keen on activities, sports and campus life. Those in the 10th grade are looking heavily at rankings. Because students are effectively on cell phones once they hit their teens, Modern Campus and Ruffalo Noel Levitz say colleges cannot ignore the look and customization of their websites, or being mobile-friendly, in attracting them and keeping them interested.


More from UB: Why 50% of Gen Z students say they see less value in college degrees


Still, when it comes to those searches, academics tops the list of information most sought by students (73%), with cost coming in a close second (67%) and financial aid (54%) third. About a third of students are interested in location and rankings, while a quarter is looking at housing, one of the pain points for many institutions struggling with overbooking on campuses this fall.

Though they are very interested in the idea of going to college—74% see postsecondary education as their best option—study authors note that it is incumbent on institutions to walk them through that academic journey, to show them definitively how different paths can lead to specific careers, while also being transparent on cost.

Modern Campus and Ruffalo Noel Levitz include a bevy of action steps colleges can take throughout their report to better reach high school students of all ages. These are just a few:

  • Because parents are the No. 1 influencer of students (not social media),  they say it is important to engage them early and keep them interested.
  • Know the location of the students being targeted and their penchant to move. Students in grades 9 and 10 have grand ideas of traveling far to attend college, while high school seniors tend to want to stay closer to home.
  • High achievers aren’t the only ones looking to go out of state for college. Those with the lowest GPAs are too, knowing there might be more opportunities out there for them.
  • Many students get introduced to institutions through virtual tours. Though email can be effective, that’s not how students are finding them. They’ve already been searching your site, so make sure that they are prominently featured on your home page or admissions home page.