Why 50% of Gen Z students say they see less value in college degrees

A new survey from ECMC and Vice Media questions just how well colleges can prepare them for the future.

Three refrains from the next generation of students and higher ed experts have bombarded college and university leaders over the past two years: they must create better career pathways, build shorter paths to credentials and be more affordable. But are institutions really listening?

The fifth in a series of surveys done by ECMC and Vice Media of more than 1,000 14- to 18-year-olds shows their increasing disconnect with higher education, with around 50% believing that a college degree isn’t necessary to get them where they want to go in the future. That number is down a staggering 20% from May of 2020 and 14% from the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Generation Z’s predecessors also have punctuated that trend since surveys began in January 2020, as higher education has lost more than 1.4 million students, including the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s latest report of another 4.7% falling off that cliff this spring year over year. Blame a robust job market and millions of openings—75% of those polled know about workforce shortages—the embers of a still-smoldering pandemic and, maybe, the lack of seismic change among institutions to meet their needs. Nearly 90% of those surveyed in the latest Question The Quo Education Pulse Survey said colleges aren’t doing enough to prepare students for future careers.

“While most colleges and universities embed career readiness into every single course, certificate and degree they offer, that information rarely makes its way to students,” said Amrit Ahluwalia, director of strategic insights at Modern Campus. “Instead, students are forced to draw their own conclusions about how an offering might help them achieve their dreams. Modern higher education institutions need to revamp their approach to career readiness. They need to better communicate to students how their education can support their outcomes. And making data available is the first step.”

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Ahluwalia said that data should include salary information for majors, potential career trajectories and job opening percentages for all prospective students. And those should not be in back channels but prominently displayed on websites as students conduct searches.

“That way, students can have a clear sense both of what their education will cost them, and what their ROI on that investment can be,” he said. “By embedding career data on course and program pages—available in real-time on the website—colleges can take a giant leap forward on showing, not telling, prospective students that their success matters.”

The students that are intent on pursuing degrees (85% said they are getting pressure to pursue four-year options) said they want paths that are less than three years. Colleges that already have embraced that idea might want to consider this: one-third of students polled said they want to do it in two years or less. Beyond shorter-term tracks, what is driving their thoughts as they weigh key decisions?

  • 82% are focused on careers
  • 81% are looking at skills they’ll need to be viable in the workforce
  • 79% are thinking about future earnings
  • 68% are closely surveying tuition costs, with two-thirds researching student loans
  • 66% are thinking about how much money they can make now

When asked about the top item they would change if they could about higher education, it is the cost of tuition. Half of them worry about being saddled with too much debt, a topic that has made weekly headlines as the Biden Administration seeks to provide more relief for past and current students as loan balances eclipse $1.7 trillion.

A pair of statistics show that teens are not just dreaming about future careers but already blazing paths toward them, as 40% have been enrolled in programs to learn more about jobs while more than 50% have looked specifically at roles and companies. A stunning 74% said knowing what career they want to pursue after high school is important.

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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