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Engaging and Recruiting Gen Z Students in Higher Education

How can institutions recruit more Gen Z students and prepare for the next generation? Use these tips to strengthen your higher education enrollment strategy.

Now in their teens and twenties, members of Generation Z (Gen Z) are spread across high school, college, and the workplace. Moreover, the next generation — known as Generation Alpha (Gen Alpha) — is set to enter the higher education sphere in the next five to 10 years. With many regions facing higher education enrollment challenges, it’s never been more important to understand what influences and motivates younger prospective students to attend college. 

By carefully considering Gen Z’s sociopolitical, financial, and technological realities (and potentially Gen Alpha’s), higher education leaders must create a more effective and tailored approach to their undergraduate and graduate recruitment and enrollment initiatives.  

How Society, Culture and Politics Influence Gen Z Students  

70% of Gen Z wants an activist government and is more progressive than previous generations. They tend to support active public servants and inclusive, robust social services. This collectivized political identity may stem from their personal lived experiences as Gen Z continues to challenge fixed notions about diversity. In fact, over 45% of Gen Z belongs to a non-white racial or ethnic group and  over 22% identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and/or queer (LGBTQ+). This tapestry of identities may influence their sociopolitical priorities, with an emphasis on health care access, racial and ethnic equity, and even the environment.   

Gen Z’s historically marginalized experiences and progressive priorities ultimately influence when and where they choose to pursue higher education. For example, a recent Gallup study shows that many members of Gen Z cite concerns over shrinking access to reproductive care and firearm regulation. This notion highlights the importance of expressing inclusivity and safety, wherever possible, to help match students to your institution, regardless of identity.  

Attracting and maintaining Gen Z’s attention involves empowering student voice and agency while offering tailored support that recognizes challenges faced disproportionately by certain demographics. Consider the following tips when aiming to support the sociopolitical vantage points of Gen Z:  

  • Offer and publicize accessible, comprehensive, and culturally inclusive student support services such as mental health counseling, peer groups, expanded disability services, and resources for first-generation or low income-students  
  • Amplify student voice on campus by offering robust student-run clubs and organizations, conducting regular campus climate surveys, ensuring students are represented in key committees or governing bodies, and hosting inclusive events, workshops, and round-table discussions. 
    • Showcase these efforts online so future students can better picture themselves at your institution  
    • When selecting students to feature in campus videos or stories, invite all demographics to share their stories without heavily scripted narratives, especially if their experience speaks to their unique identity and background 
Prepare to connect with all students regardless of background, identity, or ability by learning more about their needs and concerns in our 2023 Higher Education Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Survey.   

Understanding the Personal Finance Habits of Gen Z Students   

Growing up during the Great Recession, and later the COVID-19 pandemic, Gen Z may have witnessed family members or friends experiencing economic turmoil. As a result, this generation tends to exercise caution and financial conservatism. Their cost sensitivity means they practice more discretion before purchasing and prefer brands that prioritize sustainability, social accountability, and authenticity. One BBC article even goes as far to call Gen Z “picky,” delaying purchases until it’s a true necessity or holding out for a better deal.  

These attitudes may contribute to their debt aversion and reservations about the return on investment (ROI) they would receive from higher education. Furthermore, survey research cites that most members of Gen Z value the prospects of higher education but over 50% of college-bound secondary students do not believe they can afford it. In other words, it’s good news that their interest in higher education remains strong, but the fact is many may not make it to matriculation due to rising costs.  

Understanding how Gen Z’s financial and retail habits influence their higher education preferences is crucial in improving college recruitment rates among this generation. Colleges and universities can better differentiate themselves from peer institutions by appealing to Gen Z’s careful spending habits and worries about debt and the future. Gen Z is looking for institutions with strong career preparation, interesting coursework, and engaging faculty who care about their well-being. Use the following tips to attract cost-conscious members of Gen Z:   

  • Transparently provide tuition and fee information, while emphasizing generous financial aid opportunities and providing tips to cut costs or save on tuition  
  • Encourage financial services to offer multiple communication methods and venues for prospective students and their families to learn about ways to pay for college and ask their financial aid questions (such as virtual Q&A sessions, drop-in office hours, in-person events, print and email communications, and clear website information)   
  • Focus institutional branded messaging on the return on investment that students receive, and clearly connect career outcomes to all academic programs 
Learn how to creatively engage cost-sensitive younger alumni in your institutional giving plans with our blog, 5 Trends Driving University Fundraising. 

The Role of Technology for Newer Generations    

Many members of Gen Z grew up heavily immersed in rapid technological growth. Overall, they hold a positive attitude toward technology. They consider technology to be an extension of themselves, inextricably linked to their daily lives. They reject the notion that frequent technology use is an addiction or compulsion. It even plays a key role in Gen Z’s career interests.  

Furthermore, 91% of Gen Z says the ability to work with innovative technology would influence their job choice among similar employment offers. As technology continues to progress at a rapid pace, keep in mind that the younger Gen Alpha’s future careers will rely on technology that has yet to become commonplace. Higher education leaders should prepare to increase career-connected learning that’s focused on building students’ experiences with emerging technology.  

Ultimately, leveraging Gen Z’s affinity, fascination, and proficiency with technology will be a valuable tool in catching younger prospective students’ attention and eventually guiding them to matriculation. Consider the following takeaways when aiming to leverage Gen Z’s interest in technology:   

  • Use short and concise content on social media to build Gen Z’s online engagement with your institution.
    • Your digital marketing efforts must compete with not only automated filters and algorithms, but also Gen Z’s own intrinsic ability to quickly filter out irrelevant information  
  • Highlight training and support options for campus technology, software, and devices during tours and in marketing efforts  
    • Despite being digital natives, Gen Z values support and service as part of their educational experience 
  • Streamline the admissions process by optimizing mobile accessibility and personalized digital communications. 
Find out how colleges and universities plan to overcome challenges this year with our annual report on the 2024 Trends in Higher Education. 

 

Like all generations, Gen Z and those that come after it will continue to evolve and gain their own unique challenges. Their needs ultimately inform their major life decisions such as when, where, and even if they will enter higher education. Gen Z does demonstrate a promising interest in higher education. However, as financial and sociopolitical barriers continue to discourage younger students, colleges and universities must find creative ways to make the most out of their recruitment seasons to connect authentically with them. Understanding how sociological, financial, and technological factors influence the priorities of Gen Z (and potentially Gen Alpha) is a powerful tool for improving your institution’s recruitment and enrollment efforts in 2024 and beyond.  

Learn more about how Gen Z student perspectives influence their higher education needs and habits with our infographic, 9 Tips to Attract Gen Z Students. 

 

Learn how to overcome higher education enrollment challenges by understanding the unique needs preferences of Gen z students.

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