Generation Z, generally considered to include anyone born between 1996 and 2010, has officially become the majority demographic among college students in the U.S.
Known for their dedication to social justice, a strong sense of individuality, and a desire for entrepreneurship, this generation is shaking up the way higher education needs to function and what student support services are most in demand.
These students’ collegiate experiences have been largely shaped by the pandemic, as many first entered or applied for college while online courses and nationwide unemployment were on the rise.
Here, I’ve highlighted critical facts about Gen Z that should impact how student affairs — the entire field and its individual professionals — operates. I’ve also outlined best practices for institutions in adapting to these students’ needs.
In a 2020 survey, half of respondents ages 18 to 23 reported that they or someone in their household had lost a job or taken a pay cut due to the pandemic. Young workers are particularly vulnerable to job loss as they are overrepresented in high-risk service sector industries.
As a result, Gen Z students are concerned about the practical outcomes and values of a college education. They are skeptical of the claim that a college degree leads to job security.
Here are some career-related facts about GenZ, along with tips for student affairs can address these trends:
1. Gen Z students are entrepreneurial and eager to develop practical workforce skills.
They also desire personalized learning and clear integrations between their education and post-graduation goals. To address this, you can:
- Offer hands-on projects, research opportunities, service-learning trips and internships starting during your students’ first year. (Learn more about developing such high-impact practices through Presence’s free ebook here.)
- Collaborate with local employers to simplify the processes of securing an internship, finding a professional mentor, and earning academic credit.
- Facilitate co-curricular programming to help students develop networking, brand building, self-marketing, and other essential job search skills.
- Create co-curricular pathways, through which students can gain workforce-ready skills through flexible programming options.
2. They’re worried about college affordability.
In one study, 67% of Gen Z respondents indicated affordability as a barrier to their college enrollment. However, 81% of respondents to that same survey said they believe that college is crucial to starting a career. You can speak to financial concerns in these ways:
- Be transparent in admissions materials. Publish retention and graduation rates, facts about the acquisition of skills per major, and post-graduation job and internship placement rates.
- Highlight alumni who are thriving in their professional fields — along with current students pursuing exciting internships — via social media, career workshops, and mentorship program.
- Showcase the value of your institution on marketing materials, highlighting services beyond academic courses — such as essential offerings from the career service center and goal-oriented academic advising sessions
- In your online and in financial aid materials, list scholarships offered at your institution and through local organizations or government agencies.
- Highlight support offerings, such as your writing and tutoring center, that students can utilize to support their academic assignments online, on social media, and on marketing materials.
3. Gen-Z students value input from their peers, family members, and other role models more than previous generations did.
One study found that when it comes to selecting the college they’ll attend, Gen Z-ers rely on the opinions of their peers more than on school counselors. You can respond to this trend by:
- Up your marketing game. Engage with prospective and current students on social media, give away fun swag items at fairs, and build informational materials (like websites and pamphlets) targeted towards families. Share user-generated content from current students or heartwarming videos of accepted students opening their admissions letters.
- Encourage students to bring parents and other family members, close friends, or even a pet to key events — such as accepted students day, orientation, and homecoming.
4. Gen Z-ers are passionate about making the world a better place.
Their top issues of concern include climate change, discrimination, and mental health. Mental health is an especially salient issue for Gen Z, with 91% (in 2017) saying that they have experienced physical or emotional symptoms due to stress and mental illness within the past year. You can support students’ mental health issues in these ways:
- Work with your counseling center to offer mediated group support sessions on topics such as grief, anxiety, depression, and alcohol abuse.
- Train mental health counselors to be culturally competent and sensitive to the concerns of Generation Z, the most racially and ethnically diverse generation.
- Plan with counselors and student support teams ahead of time about how the institution can reach out and involve close friends and relatives in support of a struggling student. Kind in mind that 88% of Gen Z students say they feel extremely close to their parents, whom they see as friends and advisors.
5. Two-thirds of Gen Z students want to make a positive impact on the world and nearly 40% aim to invent something that will “change the world”.
In response, your institution should:
- Offer opportunities for students to engage in service-learning and entrepreneurship while giving back to their local communities. Learn more about best practices for service-learning here.
- Empower students to get involved in political and social movements beyond voting. Invite speakers and leaders to discuss topical issues with students and highlight career center opportunities related to community service. (Check out these additional ideas for engaging students in political action and community advocacy.
- Follow the University of Connecticut’s lead with its Careers for the Common Good initiative and Non-Profit and Service Career Fair.
6. Nearly half of Gen Z-ers — 47% — participate in organized religion, compared to only 18% of Millennials.
You can support the interests and needs of the 47% in these ways:
- Interweave spirituality into wellness services as a core component of promoting student well-being. This could involve offering faith-based mental health counseling and holding open houses for spiritual centers on campus.
- Celebrate the different faiths around campus. Beyond just flyers and programming, be cognizant of religious holidays occurring year-round. Be sure to also support students who belong to minority religions; there are lots of tips on that here.
7. Gen Z is the most tech-savvy generation to date.
98% of Gen Z-ers owns a smartphone, which they check over 80 times a day. The National Association for College Admission Counseling found that Gen Z-ers loathe email; they prefer texting. In response, your institution should:
- Trim down the number of emails each department and office sends students. And when absolutely must email, condense your message down into short, direct bullet points with hyperlinks that provide additional information.
- Consider a bulk texting service to remind students of advising appointments, course registration dates, and open house events.
8. Gen Z students crave face-to-face communication.
They have a higher preference for in-person learning and pen and paper note-taking than Millennials. So, your institution should:
- Keep this preference in mind when planning your activities calendar out for the semester. Though virtual programming has the power to engage additional students, especially those with family responsibilities and part-time jobs, many students still value in-person events. So make sure you strike a balance between both types of offerings.
- Don’t ditch face-to-face options for admissions counseling, academic advising, and career advising appointments. Offer in-person meetings alongside virtual options, instead of assuming students and families will choose Zoom every time.
9. TikTok and Youtube are extremely popular among Gen-Z. Facebook does not dominate their social media landscape.
So, you can diversify your efforts by curating your institution’s social media pages in the following ways:
- Have your office’s social media accounts participate in trends and challenges on TikTok and Instagram. (There are more great ideas for using Tik Tok and Instagram Live to engage students here.)
- Find ways to engage students both in-person and online, such as through selfie scavenger hunts and roommate TikTok dance challenges.
- Update students’ families on events and back-to-school tips on Facebook. Facebook is still great for connecting with older generations, who are more likely to be active on that platform.
10. Gen-Z students expect instant access to data and information.
After all, Google, Siri, and Alexa have made them used to receiving answers on demand. To address this:
- Update your department’s website as frequently as possible. For announcing programs, events, and student organizations, an engagement portal is particularly helpful.
- Create FAQ pages to answer questions asked by current students and prospective ones.
- You could even use a chatbot like Arizona State University does.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Generation Z is going to continue to challenge and shake up best practices within higher education. In order to support our students and keep our institutions relevant, student affairs professionals will need to adapt and alter how we communicate and engage with this generation.
What additional advice do you have about engaging with Generation Z? Connect with us on Twitter @themoderncampus.