Two studies show Gen Z, companies may not want 4-year degrees

Career and technical education is intriguing to high school students, even if they are a bit uncertain about its value.

More than 80% of business leaders not only believe workforce skills gaps can be achieved through alternative education pathways but also see them as a very important part of the future of training and learning.

While the majority of the 1,000 influential heads of teams and groups within companies taking part in a study done by student platform BestColleges did not discount the value of four-year paths, more of them indicated that bachelor’s degrees were not necessary for many new jobs and said employers should not include the requirement when they post positions.

The study was one of two conducted by the platform in September, and its results mirror another done by the nonprofit ECMC Group and VICE Media, which shows that students are thinking about other options beyond the traditional four-year model.

“With college costs rising and enrollments declining, conversations are happening around other options for job-related training and education,” said Melissa Venable, the report’s author and online education advisor for BestColleges. “Awareness and acceptance of technical and vocational training as pathways to successful employment and career development may be increasing among those making career decisions.”

That acceptance is trickling down to families and students as they weigh the value vs. cost of a four-year degree path. In a separate study done of more than 2,000 adults, BestColleges found adults were split evenly on the advice they would give to others on pursuing a traditional path (38%) over technical or vocational training (38%). They themselves also would favor alternative paths now over a four-year education by a slim margin if they had a chance to enter college again.

Still, negative stigmas remain prevalent on the worth of certificates, apprenticeships, and technical and on-the-job training. Only a third of the adult respondents believe the image of those pathways is “favorable” now, despite the fact that half believe they are a solid investment and will be a factor in the future.

Inside the numbers

The Question the Quo surveys done by ECMC and Vice show that while 85% of Generation Z teens (14-18) feel pressure to choose a four-year college or university, only 48% say they are considering it, a drop of nearly 25% since a first survey was done shortly after the pandemic. Whether those survey thoughts will translate into significant enrollment drops remains to be seen: four-year colleges and universities did lose some students during the pandemic but not the kind of spikes indicated from the survey. Still, they bear watching as losses shown by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center were historic.

The one sector that has been hardest hit is community colleges. A potential ray of hope from the report is that nearly half of students polled want postsecondary completion to be less than four years, while 45% said it should be two years or less. Around that same percentage want shorter bursts of learning—one-year options over four years—as they understand their educations will be lifelong.

“Over the past 20 months, we have seen a significant shift in teens’ thoughts about education beyond high school, with more and more looking for options beyond a four-year degree as a path to a career,” said Jeremy Wheaton, president and CEO of ECMC Group. “We as educators must ensure they have the information and support necessary to select and complete the right education path for them—regardless of the path they choose.”

Some other notable numbers from the ECMC on student desires:

  • Two-thirds want experiential learning, while a little more than half want to gain skills through on-the job training. One drawback is the majority of employers (57%) still do not offer these paths to workers.
  • More than 80% of teens are thinking about careers once a week and more than half are having thoughts about future education and jobs daily.
  • More than 60% know the future path they want to pursue
  • Nearly 60%, however, are worried about how they will pay for that education
  • Of the top concerns among concerns considering postsecondary education, cost ranks No. 1 (43%), ahead of a college’s value or potential career placement.

Not only are 15% more students aware of career and technical education since the start of the pandemic, but 57% would consider pursuing it if it were free.

“These insights indicate teens are extremely tuned in to their future career path but need to know more about the education it takes to get there,” said Wheaton. “Their focus has shifted on their future, weighing what matters most and cutting out the unnecessary. We have an opportunity to illuminate the pathways from high school to postsecondary education, on-the-job learning and careers, and the value education still holds for the future generations of workers.”

For four-year public and private institutions, that means providing value—in terms of cost of tuition and fees, the availability of online course options, partnerships with businesses and multiple pathways to success for students.


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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