With Gen Z students loving non-degree pathways, here’s how higher ed leaders can adapt

"Generation Z is interested in something new," says the report's lead researcher Susan Acevedo-Moyer. "New ways of learning and connecting education to a career. Higher education leaders need to figure out how to incorporate that into their curricula."

Undergraduate and freshmen enrollment in the spring and fall semesters illuminates a growing interest in non-degree credentials. Meanwhile, the four-year degree at public and private nonprofit schools vacillates between modest gains and stagnation.

As higher education continues to adapt to Gen Z students’ novel preferences, a new survey commissioned by American Student Assistance and Jobs for the Future helps shed light on why non-degree pathways may be in for sustained invigoration for the years to come.

The survey reached more than 1,100 high school graduates who opted not to go to college and either pursued a non-degree postsecondary pathway or no pathway at all. Of the 558 respondents pursuing a pathway, one in three had pursued a certification (31%) or certificate (33%).

ASA and JFF found that nine out of 10 Gen Z high school graduates are satisfied with the pathway they are pursuing or pursued. This near-unanimous response contends with a recent survey by The Wall Street Journal that showed Americans don’t believe college is worth the cost. Additionally, of the nearly 600 non-pathway students, two-thirds would have considered a pathway program if they knew more about them, exemplifying their high ceiling.

What can higher ed leaders learn from non-pathway students’ outcomes among Gen Z?

For traditional colleges and universities insisting on winning students’ trust, consider aiming for some of these key metrics discovered among students who pursued alternative postsecondary pathways.

“Generation Z is interested in something new,” says the report’s lead researcher Susan Acevedo-Moyer. “New ways of learning and connecting education to a career. Higher education leaders need to figure out how to incorporate that into their curricula.”

Confidence and workforce readiness

Seven out of 10 respondents who chose to pursue a non-degree pathway reported they have high confidence in their post-high school plans, a 13-point increase compared to non-pathways youth. Their belief in being workforce-ready drives students’ confidence; 71% of respondents feel confident about the workforce.

More significantly, confidence in alternative pathways extends to minority student populations, such as Black youth. They reported the highest sense of preparation for the workforce, with one-third saying they felt “very prepared” for the workforce, compared with 24% of white pathway youth.

Meeting students’ current needs & wants 

Students today want hands-on, experiential learning and work-based education, Acevedo-Moyer says. Gen Z wants fewer costs, to engage in a field of interest and have a flexible class schedule as they weigh options after high school.

Non-degree pathways may be providing just that for students. Male respondents primarily believed hands-on training was the most satisfying facet of pursuing their non-college pathway (43%). Nearly half (49%) of all women respondents said it was the ability to complete studies faster.

As for costs, Year Up, a career-aligned training program that purports to land 80% of its students a job or another postsecondary opportunity in four years, is tuition-free. The program even offers students a stipend.

Make friends, not enemies

Above all, higher education shouldn’t view itself as being in competition with non-college pathways. Instead, they need to find ways to integrate its curricula into theirs, Acevedo-Moyer says. “Higher education needs to make sure they’re complementing these types of learning and figuring out how to connect, build pipelines and stack these credentials so they’re not threatening one another but acting in partnership.”

Some colleges and college systems are already attempting to coordinate efforts with third-party digital credentials servicers to do just that.

Secondly, perhaps institutions should take a backseat in prioritizing traditionally aged freshmen students and win them when they’re deeper into their young adulthood. After all, it’s not a black-and-white street where students can only choose alternative pathways.

“It doesn’t mean no college; it may mean college later on,” Acevedo-Moyer says. “But if they can get their training quickly, less expensively, and have that work-based learning available to them so they can enter the workforce early, that’s what our Gen Z students want to see.”

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. His beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

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