How Gen Z is Changing Higher EducationGeneration Z expresses different priorities with respect to their educational goals. Learn more about what makes them different and how they are changing higher education. 


Their viewpoints on education, finances, stress, technology, and social issues might surprise you. In response, private schools, both college prep boarding and day schools, as well as colleges are rethinking the educational landscape and their deliverables.  




Gen Z and Higher Education 


Who falls under Gen Z?

Gen Z (also referred to as iGen), is generally defined by researchers as people born after 1996 and ending in approximately 2012. According to Timely MD, “Gen Z includes 74 million young people – about 24% of the population.” As they head off to college, their mindset will directly impact college programs across the board. 


How will their diversity affect higher education?

The Pew Research Center shows that nearly half of the younger Gen Zs fall under racial or ethnic minorities. By stark contrast, this is more than double the percentage of Baby Boomers. For higher education, this could mean a close scrutiny of their programs and services. 


  • 52% are non-Hispanic white* 
  • 14% are black
  • 6% are Asian 
  • 5% are some other race or two or more races.


* This is significantly smaller than the share of Millennials who were non-Hispanic white in 2002 (61%). 


Source: Pew Research Center


How will Gen Z cope with stress?

According to the APA Stress in America Survey, they are more likely to categorize their mental health in the “poor” range. This is a whopping 27% compared to 15% of millennials and only 13% of Gen Xers. In order to be responsive, higher education will need to provide stress management workshops, counseling, financial support, and other services to keep their stressors in check. 


How are they doing in high school?

It appears Gen Z will become the most educated generation, with higher graduation rates from high school. With lower high school dropout rates, this marks a positive shift. 


How are private schools preparing Gen Z students for higher education?

Some private schools are providing both college prep and career-oriented experience. For example, Army and Navy Academy, prepares students by providing: a University of California (U.C.) standard-based curriculum, leadership training, character development, and real-world skills (time management, etiquette, communication skills, goal setting). In addition, they offer a number of other programs that are career-oriented programs such as: computer science and aviation. 


How does their upbringing impact higher ed?

This is a generation that grew up under the umbrella of the internet, cell phones, and social media channels like Instagram. This means that a Gen Z higher education will require both in-person and virtual options. Professors will need to be aware of the heavy use of mobile devices for research. In addition, colleges will need to educate this generation about how to manage their social media presence.


What social issues will affect Gen Z in higher ed?  

This generation grew up during the Great Recession and witnessed protests and strong social/political movements. In turn, this will require higher education institutions to respect and understand their strong viewpoints. This will include awareness of their views about money, career directions, and what a college education needs to deliver. 


What are their goals?

According to, “making money and having a successful career are the two most universally important life goals for Gen Z adults – more than pursuing friends, family, or hobbies. Seventy percent of Gen Z adults say making money is very important to them.”


What makes them different? 

As the most diverse group in modern history, their attitudes about finances, and their technological inclinations are quite different from previous generations. With this in mind, this generation is particularly in tune with issues focused on inclusion (e.g. race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender identity). 


How do they use technology?

Gen Zers view technology as integral to how they gather information, learn, and how they communicate with others. Higher education will need to flex to their expectations to receive many services based on their preference for in-person or virtual. 


Is Gen Z more practical?

Absolutely, most findings indicate this generation cares more about practicalities. This explains their focus on finances for example. They also expect academics to be highly relevant to their career goals. 


How do they shop?

Gen Z shoppers look for ease in understanding pricing and fees. They seek out good value for their money and want to know the return-on-investment. This applies to higher education as well. 


Changing Trends in Higher Education 


How is this generation impacting college recruitment? As higher education faces fewer applicants due to population trends, recruitment and retention strategies are changing. Right now, many undergrad programs are still set up to deal with millennials, so this is ushering in a whole host of changes to appeal to a different set of concerns and expectations. Institutions of higher education are assessing their mission, values, and philosophy, as well as college majors, career services, and support systems. 


How is higher education changing in terms of college majors? College Advisor indicates the following majors are all on the horizon: Business Administration/Management, Engineering, Computer Science, Nursing, Environmental Science, Sociology, and Education. 


How does Gen Z view the purpose of college? For this generation, their primary focus is on gaining a career. Perhaps this is due in large part because of their experience growing up during the Great Recession. According to the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, 57% reported they expected college to prepare them for a specific career. 


How do they view college services? Gen Z will expect their campus to provide a wide range of services to support them, including: academic tutoring, mental and physical health services, and career development resources. 


How do they want to be educated? Gen Z in higher education will expect to directly apply what they are learning and use a variety of tools to do so. Given their focus on YouTube to learn a variety of things, this helps explain why project-based learning appeals to them. They want lessons based on the real-world, so they leave college with highly marketable skills. 


What do they want in terms of campus life? While some generations prefer the luxuries of life, Gen Zers are okay with fewer comforts if they are getting strong support. For example, they want lots of interaction with their peers and professors. Facilities will need to accommodate their preferences for social interactions. 


Do they need help with personal and character development? Higher education will definitely need to support these students with areas including, study habits, time management, technology use, mental well-being, fitness, and communication skills. Higher ed will also need to help these students with character development as part of their maturation process. 


How will they pay for college? This is a major concern for this generation. Some polls indicate at least 25% are thinking about the cost of higher education. An increase in community college enrollment and online courses could significantly increase. Ålso, some students might work and take a gap year to help pay for college. 


How can colleges address financial concerns? First, institutions of higher education will need to show the value of an education at their respective institution. This will mean showcasing key differentiators, approaches to learning, majors offered, and data to back up outcomes following graduation. This generation expects a strong return of their investment, so data will have to share metrics about career placement, salary history, work locations, and statistics important to them. 


In conclusion, as you can see, higher education will need to shift with the needs and expectations of this very unique generation. This will require, not only a deep understanding of what makes this generation different, but also programs and services that respect and support these key differences. 


Higher education faces some key challenges to make a college education both accessible and affordable. At the same time, they must deliver an education that prepares students for careers and provides them with an edge to compete well in this ever-changing world.