Cathy Heinz covers Gen Z’s attitude about traditional higher education with just one sentence: “Who doesn’t know a teen who turns to YouTube to learn how to do something?”
Heinz, the director of Enrollment Management Communications at Purdue University, says that Generation Z, kids aged 5 to 22, are less interested in attending a four-year university because of their easy access to free information with the internet. “This includes free educational resources such as the Khan Academy and even online college coursework,” she continues.
A NEW GENERATION OF CHALLENGES
Not only does today’s teenager feel empowered to learn new things because of the internet, but this confidence also leads them to believe that they can get a good education without college. And, when they look at Generation Y’s piles of academic- related debt, the argument for a less traditional route strengthens. Generation Z grew up during the Great Recession; they learned at a young age the importance of financial stability.
“Older Gen Zs were growing up during a time of financial instability. Their parents may have lost jobs or homes, and they’re reluctant to take on any kind of debt, including college debt,” Heinz explains.
These two factors—alternative ways to get an education and a heightened financial awareness—seem to be the largest forces driving teens away from the traditional route of on-campus higher education.
In fact, the brand, enrollment, and admissions teams at Roberts Wesleyan College even go as far as to say that prospective students’ love affairs with digital devices mean they don’t need friendships to be in-person to be considered valuable. A friend through Instagram, to this generation, is just as much of a friend as someone the teen knows IRL (social media-speak for “in real life”).
No matter if the relationships are online or offline, though, one thing remains true: Teens place huge importance on interpersonal connections. So, if they’re going to go to college, they need to envision the types of connections they will make.
“Twenty years ago, students mostly were interested in reading textbooks, attending classroom lectures, writing papers, and getting their diplomas. The Gen Z student trends toward hands-on, out-of-the-classroom experiences such as internships, research in the field, and studying away,” Cornell B. LeSane, II, Vice President for Enrollment and Dean of Admission at Allegheny College says.
He continues, “We are continually impressed by the commitment that students in Gen Z show to affecting social change and tackling big problems. It’s always challenging to characterize an entire generation but, in speaking with students, we have seen that Gen Z is looking for opportunities where they can share their talents, develop them further, and work with others to make a difference.”
Roberts Wesleyan College agrees on Gen Z’s preferred style of learning, stating that the teens “value learning abroad and coming up with new ideas in unique learning environments—they want to be given opportunities to show what they can do.” LeSane says, though, that potential students may not believe that the traditional higher education route can provide those meaningful experiences they’re seeking. LeSane also thinks that perception is incorrect.
“Our experience has been that students time and again come to Allegheny and, both through their academic work and engagement with the community, find many meaningful ways to have a positive impact as they’re taking the next step toward promising futures,” he says.
In a similar vein, when you look at what Roberts Wesleyan College, a faith-based institution in Rochester, New York, is doing to provide realworld experience to students, you may begin to see LeSane’s point.
“Seventy percent of students at Roberts complete an internship,” the team at Roberts says. “Another way we focus on that is through our Global Honors Program, which gives students an exclusive learning experience. They like seeing the bigger picture, like international learning, which we offer through on-location programs.”
Though colleges and universities seem to be adding and tweaking programs to appeal to Generation Z, those efforts fall on deaf ears if the marketing arm cannot correctly communicate the details. Especially because “Gen Z is hyper-aware of marketing and isn’t as brand loyal as previous generations,” as Purdue’s Heinz describes it; strong brands can’t “rest on their laurels” or assume yesterday’s solutions will work today.
A LESSON IN ROI
Selling the idea of higher education to Generation Z might not be simple, but it’s not impossible. All three institutions featured in this article agree that one of the biggest hurdles to tackle first when communicating with teens and their families is—gulp—finances. Each of the experts makes a note of the “return on investment” when it comes to a college degree.
Students and parents alike want to know: Will this $30,000 piece of paper prove to be worth it in the real world?
For Purdue, the answer is seemingly easy. Heinz says, “Tuition and costs have been frozen and even reduced to a point at which students will pay less to attend Purdue in 2020 than they did in 2012. There are options for students to complete their bachelor’s degree in three years, and we have expanded opportunities for students to earn a Purdue degree online.”
Heinz says that Purdue’s student borrowing has decreased 22 percent since the 2012-2013 academic year. In addition to online degree programs and frozen tuition costs, other solutions to offering an affordable college education also include varied financial aid options. Roberts, for example, offers an average financial aid package of $21,779 for incoming freshmen. A total of $13 million was awarded to traditional undergraduate students last year at the school. Because the private college does not benefit from New York State’s Excelsior Awards, which makes a state education more affordable, Roberts must develop the ROI of a degree in a different way.
Roberts has a 4-Year Promise that guarantees not only four years of career preparation, alumni mentoring, and spiritual formation, but also graduation within four years. If a student doesn’t graduate in four years, the college promises to pay for the courses needed to graduate.
Along with that program, the small college launched the Roberts Opportunity Grant, which is a value-added grant for students who don’t receive any academic scholarships (about 20 percent of students). For incoming first-time, full-time freshmen, Roberts Wesleyan will guarantee that students who don’t already receive an academic scholarship will receive a $32,000 grant over four years—a minimum of $8,000 each year. First-time, full-time freshmen from any state can benefit from this financial gift.
Another added value to traditional higher education, LeSane says, is the variety of skills students learn on campus as opposed to an isolated experience of learning a skill online.
“The labor market today is rewarding those with the kind of skills that liberal arts colleges, in particular, are noted for developing—effective verbal and written communication, a deep breadth of knowledge about a variety of disciplines, and keen problem- solving abilities,” LeSane explains. “According to employment experts, young people in the job market today and those getting ready to enter it will change careers at least several times in their lifetimes, and they’ll need those valuable skills to navigate those career changes successfully and profitably.”
LeSane also says salary statistics highly favor people in the workforce who obtain four-year degrees.
To effectively reach Generation Z and communicate these value-adds to higher education offerings, institutions need to speak to teenagers the way they are accustomed to connecting.
LeSane says Allegheny College works social media “relentlessly,” and Roberts Wesleyan College uses Snapchat, Instagram and text messaging to promote their value to the kids. And while connecting via their preferred communication avenues is critical, communications centered on the experiences they crave is what reigns supreme in higher ed recruitment campaigns.
Heinz says, “Over the past several years, we have focused a great deal on storytelling. This is an excellent way to be authentic, honest, and engaging. Sharing information by telling stories about real students or campus experiences is much more memorable for prospective students and their families than reading or hearing a litany of facts.”
Selling the value of college to students goes hand-in-hand with selling your brand, and honesty plays a large role in reaching Gen Z effectively. “Colleges need to embrace honesty, authenticity, and transparency, even if that reveals blemishes,” Heinz says. “These well-connected young adults share their reality quite willingly, and if universities can’t live up to the commitments they make when they’re recruiting students, the honesty and authenticity Gen Z lives by will come back to bite the institutions.”
Appealing to Gen Z in a trustworthy way involves their peers. Purdue has begun to invest more in developing student ambassadors and finding ways for them to interact with prospective students. These ambassadors share their stories and experiences.
“Because of how Gen Z accesses and curates information, they place a high value on information from their peers,” Heinz explains.
A similar tactic is employed by Roberts, where alumni mentors provide career advice and networking opportunities. Additionally, the school hosts overnight camps for high school students to experience a “college-student experience” on campus. Students can choose one of five camps: nursing, pre-med, crime scene investigation, social justice, and worship.
”Students leave these camps with a greater knowledge of college life and concrete experience in a potential field of interest,” according to the Roberts team.
To further drive the idea of the college experience home, Allegheny benefits greatly from campus visits thanks to its nature-infused location of northwest Pennsylvania. LeSane says they are taking a “face-to-face, experiential approach” to recruiting students and their families. The families, by the way, are just as important to market to as the students are—college is a family decision.
No matter the methods of marketing and communication, though, there are still core pieces to the puzzle that result in a college degree yielding a high ROI. Purdue partnered with analytics company Gallup to create the Gallup Purdue Index (GPI). The GPI provided insight into which experiences in college are related to successful outcomes after college graduation and later in life, and the research showed something very telling for higher education leaders trying to differentiate their institution from others—especially in such a competitive (albeit collaborative) industry.
The GPI research found that how you go to college is more important than where you go to college. It identified fundamental college experiences that are important to lifelong success: having professors who care about you and make you excited about learning, having a mentor, working on a long-term project, having an internship or job related to your area of study, and being active in extracurricular activities.
This new set of measures for college success is a fresh foundation for institutions across the country to focus on the priorities that increase the value of the educational opportunities they can offer tech-obsessed teenagers who believe they can learn everything from YouTube.