What are Gen Z’s top priorities when looking at colleges?

The most important factor is what kind of education an institution provides, and financial aid doesn't hurt.

Whether a result of the pandemic or an understanding that the generations before them have piled up $1.73 trillion in loan debt, students from Gen Z have made clear that their top priorities when assessing colleges are not social scenes, activities or location.

Instead, they are squarely focused on outcomes that matter. According to a study conducted by online career platform Tallo, the vast majority (62%) say they are selecting a post-secondary institution based on their academics or majors, followed by financial aid and scholarships (22%). Less than 10% are considering them based on a college’s reputation or extracurricular options.

“A lot of universities were priding themselves on their admission selectivity, their location and their campus life,” says Casey Welch, co-founder and chief executive at Tallo. “But COVID taught us that, what happens if the campus life isn’t there? What if location isn’t everything? What if admissions selectivity actually isn’t the best benchmark for getting the best return on your investment? Those were always the big drivers we saw a lot of universities pushing. When we asked students, none of those three were their top priority. Just highlighting how exclusive or prestigious you are, it’s not all about that anymore.”

Welch says that’s because members of Gen Z are different in their approach. “They’re a group that wants to work and they want to learn,” he says. “They’re focused on careers and what type of companies they want to work for. It’s not just about going to the college that has their favorite sports team. It’s not about going to one that has the best branding. They’re starting to look at their return on investment; which programs in higher ed can actually help get them there. They’re making adult decisions earlier.”

He says colleges that can provide high-quality education, flexible pathways and stout career services will thrive in the future, regardless of institution size or scope. Gen Z students won’t settle. They fully comprehend cost, based on debt incurred by Millennials and Gen X, and know they have options available. “They understand that higher ed is an important path. They also understand that it’s not the only path,” Welch says. “They’re asking questions: How likely am I to graduate? How much debt am I going to incur? Are there ways that I could get an employer to pay for it? They’re not against higher ed, but if they go, it can’t be to figure out what career they want to do. They’re doing that preplanning before they get there.”

Inside the study

A little more than 40% of high school students and more than 70% of college sophomores say they already have identified employers that they want to work for before they graduate. Around 70% said they would be more likely to attend a university that had reached out to them in 9th or 10th grade. “They’re not waiting. They can make better decisions if they have more time to plan and know how they can afford that college,” Welch notes. “[Colleges] should get to talent early and help them with those processes.”

Adaptability of career tracks, shorter times to completion, experiential learning options and a college’s connections to businesses are highly attractive to this generation.

“They can look at a company and say, if I want to work for a Google or Lockheed, are there certain institutions that have partnerships?”  Welch says. “What is my earning potential? Does it make sense for me to go to an institution where I might have $150,000 in debt to get a $40,000 job? Or do I go to another higher ed institution and come out with $40,000 in debt and have a $40,000 or $50,000 job? It’s a great opportunity for higher ed institutions offering certificates and credentials to say we’re preparing you for a career where you can get meaningful work.”

Help on the financial end is also critical, as 75% of prospective students surveyed are saving for tuition. A higher percentage of Black and Hispanic students noted its importance in choosing a college. “We saw a higher percentage of students than expected saving money for college tuition,” Welch says. “They understand how expensive it is. If they do want to go the higher ed route, they want to make sure that they’re prepared.”

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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