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Gen Z and the Future of Higher Education


Attitudes and behaviors toward digital content consumption and device usage — especially by those 22 and younger — influence how higher education institutions can stay ahead. New research sheds light on how the industry should engage with the connected life of Gen Z.

Higher education, like virtually every industry, faces significant technology challenges thanks to student expectations for more immersive digital experiences. While some industries transition from brick-and-mortar establishments to online marketplaces, higher education faces an upheaval of a different sort.

Fear not; university campuses won’t disappear anytime soon. Real-world networking, research and socialization are integral to the college experience, but Generation Z behaviors are driving change in most other aspects of higher education. Foremost are the ways these institutions market themselves to prospective students, cater to needs and learning styles, and prepare collegians with employable skills.

We commissioned the Center for Generational Kinetics to uncover the nuances of these generational differences in digital content consumption patterns. Specifically, our study examined the perceptions and trends for three groups over the next three to five years. These groups included:

  • Gen Z (ages 15-22).

  • Millennials/Gen Y (ages 23-41).

  • Gen X (ages 42-53).

Here are the biggest trends colleges and universities — as well as such supporting industries as content publishers — should be aware of, along with insights on how to evolve models and offerings to meet expectations.

Figure 1

Impart the institution’s value through user-generated content

Consider the implications for higher education from this finding: When making purchasing decisions —and a college education is a big purchase — Gen Z depends on recommendations and content from people they trust, not necessarily brands or companies. Almost half (47%) of Gen Z respondents said friends and family most affect their decisions, while a quarter (24%) point to social media influencers. 

This trend will only grow stronger. More than a third (35%) of Gen Z believe user-generated content will have more credibility than company- or education institution-created content in the near future, which will have critical implications for higher education.

What we suggest for higher education institutions:

  • Consider how user-generated content complements existing marketing strategies. User-generated videos, images and reviews of universities or classes give an inside look at what it’s like to really attend.

  • Globally, enrollments are declining. Many large employers, including Google, do not require a four-year degree, and Gen Z hears a discouraging drumbeat about being saddled with massive educational debt. Colleges and universities need to uncover new models, such as micro-credentialing, by leveraging AI and analytics to individualize the learning experience, build context through real-world experience and even link fees to employability.

Immersive content becomes part of the learning experience

The majority of Gen Z (60%) is open to incorporating virtual reality into their experience with movies, shows and games. This trend will extend into the learning environment as students expect an immersive educational approach that provides practical experience in their chosen field.

This doesn’t necessarily mean VR and augmented reality must be part of the classroom in the near future. However, it does mean colleges and universities should seek opportunities to engage with Gen Z in new ways, and technology plays a key role here. As members of Gen Z adopt a “new normal” in what they’ve experienced in other parts of their lives, it’s important to meet their rising expectations.

What we suggest:

  • Give students a chance to engage and immerse themselves in their course material and collaborate with peers to solve problems. This could be as simple as a shared spreadsheet that student groups use to create a plan; a peer-to-peer gaming experience for assessments; or a multiplayer capstone simulation.

  • Provide opportunities to personalize materials to an even greater extent. Course materials via video are good, but a video that the student can annotate is even better.

Gen Z expects deeper personalization

Gen Z assumes everything they experience should be personalized. About 38% of Gen Z believe online ads related to their browsing history or entertainment preferences are more effective. This trend extends to marketing for education, which will be far more effective when personalized and presented in the right context.

Personalization also extends to the application process. If members of Gen Z find a process too difficult, or if it simply doesn’t fit their expectations, they may be deterred from completing the task. For universities that still insist on paper applications, this practice could lead to fewer applicants and students.

What we suggest:

  • Adopt a strategy that better meets the needs of applicants and incoming freshman. This could include a one-size-fits-all application, such as the Common App.

  • Consider adding new features to an application, such as encouraging applicants to upload videos in place of essays. About one-third of Gen Z said they prefer to interact with their smart devices by talking, compared to only 11% who prefer typing. 

Personalization is good, but too much can become problematic. Two-thirds of Gen Z think companies know too much about them. Therefore, balance the interest in personalizing the student experience based on the data collected during the application process against student preferences for privacy, existing higher education regulations and governmental privacy rules.

Although Gen Z might be tech wizards in some areas, many lack the digital literacy skills to be conscientious, responsible media consumers and members of the professional arenas they’ll soon join. Prioritization of digital literacy in higher education is being substantially influenced by the workforce. Colleges will have a role to play in ensuring Gen Z students are familiar with workforce productivity applications and are capable of creating and recognizing credible, meaningful content.

Educators should focus on creating environments and curricula that are student-centered and play to the interests and preferences of Gen Z learners by engaging them as active participants.

These challenging questions also pose exciting opportunities. Start exploring new ways to meet the needs of the Millennials and Gen Z digital consumer by scheduling a conversation with us to discuss how we are helping clients deliver relevant, personalized experiences.

To learn more, visit our website or Contact us for more insights.

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