Recruiting, Engaging and Retaining Generation Z

Strategies to meet changing expectations

The next generation of college students—Generation Z—has a variety of different expectations for higher education, particularly when it comes to the campus environment. Research has also indicated that Gen Z students have higher levels of anxiety and stress both entering and during college, which can significantly impact their likelihood of success.

This web seminar explored the results of the new 2017 University Lifestyle Survey from Sodexo, which polled over 1,000 U.S. students (and 4,000 globally) about their expectations, concerns and values when it comes to their higher education experience. The CEO of Sodexo Universities discussed the implications of this new research for institutions, outlined some practical advice for adapting campuses to meet these changing expectations, and highlighted strategies and opportunities for recruiting, engaging and retaining Gen Z students.


Barry Telford

CEO, Universities West

Sodexo North America

Barry Telford: We are embarking on a new era in higher education. It’s one that’s going to bring substantial changes in how we educate and how we operate. Global trends are having a significant impact on academics, business, economics and the political landscape. Universities must function in that arena too. With this new era, it’s important that we remain relevant. We have to rethink conventional structures and conventional wisdom, and how we provide services.

Sodexo has done this survey since 2004. As a market leader, we feel a responsibility to use our global breadth and depth to better understand the students we serve. This helps us identify trends and think about key valuable insights into their preferences and priorities. The majority of the students we talked to fit into Generation Z, which typically includes people born after 1996. They appear to be very future-focused. They’re realists. They will work hard. They are going to seek opportunities where they can. This is the first generation of digital natives, and by 2020 they will represent 80 percent of college students.

This is the most anxious generation to arrive on campus by far. Their expectations are very fluid. They’re looking for immediate reaction, which is contributing to an increased stress level among students. This is motivating many universities and their partners to consider a whole new model of service. The great news is that the survey suggests there are some factors we can now begin to predict, such as the impact of financial burden, or of good Wi-Fi, or a friendly atmosphere.

Moderator: The statistics are pretty striking, especially that 83 percent of students consider a friendly campus more important than a university’s reputation. That seems like a significant shift, especially from generations past. Do you get a sense of what’s driving a change like that?

Barry Telford: You’re absolutely right.The data suggests that students have this keen desire to belong, to be part of the community. Reputation does matter, especially for students seeking a specialized degree. But the culture on campus can supersede reputation, and it’s absolutely vital that we recognize that.

Moderator: What are some strategies you’re seeing from institutions to deal with this kind of shift?

Barry Telford: We are seeing a shift in how many universities start to market themselves. Think about the interaction points, certainly online—is the website easy to maneuver? Think about someone calling in to the university with specific questions—is it easy access? Those things are critical. We’re also seeing a shift in how marketing goes beyond aesthetics. We’re past curb appeal now. Landscaping and beautiful buildings are also critical, but it’s also about the long-term vision for that campus.

That’s why this survey is so important. It shows that the campus tour is absolutely critical. It could actually come down to who’s giving the tour. It could come down to whether Wi-Fi was accessible during the tour. Did someone walk away saying, “Gee, that felt good. It felt like I could belong quickly, easily.”

It appears that universities must consider how to promote engagement and collaboration, and certainly problem-solving. These are vital skills for career and life successes. It’s critical that students learn how to work together, how to feel comfortable in a group setting, how to share ideas. The survey found that 86 percent of U.S. students study alone in their rooms. They are completely missing the opportunity to collaborate, to share knowledge and to engage socially in different groups and different cultures. Universities have to solve for this, to think about how we can encourage collaboration, and create a “third space” option where students can further explore living, learning, communities, interaction—a safe place to promote engagement.

In terms of retaining students, one of the most interesting outcomes of the survey was how concerned students are about their future. They’re also apprehensive about mounting student loan debt and other forms of financial liability that they’re incurring along the way, along with a growing concern about securing a job after graduation and maintaining a good quality of life.

Moderator: A lot of people have made the point that it should be thought of more as an investment and not a debt. Would you agree with that?

Barry Telford: Absolutely. In the past students saw a degree as something very different than how they’re seeing it now. One of the things this survey showed is that beyond academia, there are ways that universities can provide perceived value. Things like ensuring that there’s access to student support services, or quality dining facilities where people can enjoy one another’s company. Wi-Fi is absolutely critical, so that students feel connected and part of the community. Other examples reported include clean laundry areas, free transportation on campus, access to a gym and social spaces.Then, in terms of succeeding, the survey showed us that it’s a very mixed picture for student life. Those days where students were very carefree have changed, and it’s something we need to be paying attention to.

Moderator: That’s one of the striking takeaways from the study—the stress, the anxiety, the worry that this generation feels. Are there things that institutions can do to shape the student experience in a way that lessens some of that pressure?

Barry Telford: We’re seeing lots of work in this area. We’ve got to figure out how to have a positive impact on the quality of life that students are experiencing, including more effective ways to support student success—things like career services, and partnerships with business and social enterprise, getting students involved with organizations outside of the university, and with co-op and learning programs.

To watch this web seminar in its entirety, visit

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