Gen Z: What’s College About, Anyway?

The 70-million-and-growing Generation Z. They’ve been dubbed “world-changers,” and now they’re transforming the landscape of the college experience.

They’re tech natives. There’s no such thing as “normal.” They want to do something meaningful. And they’re mindful of the value of a dollar. So what does this mean for your university? Is your campus the kind of place they want to be?

A comprehensive Barnes & Noble College survey shows that 89% of current high school and middle school students view college education as valuable, and 82% plan to go directly from high school to college. Volumes can be (and have been) written about understanding Gen Z. We’ll focus here on the priorities to you—understanding what matters most about their college aspirations.

First, let’s consider why Gen Z students are headed to college in dramatic numbers. The indicators point to pragmatism—it’s about their career paths. Students are going to college to prepare for jobs that will “interest them and reward them financially,” the B&N report concludes.

Colleges can serve Gen Z’s career interests by showcasing not just great academic programs, but more importantly, what those programs mean for the student’s future. Highlight not just majors, but professions. Talk not just about what they’ll study, but how they’ll apply those studies in the workplace.

Need more help convincing prospective students? Try real data—like job placement stats and salary projections. Show earnings comparisons for increasing levels of education. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ “Earnings and unemployment rates by educational attainment” chart makes a compelling case for higher education. And best of all, testimonials of successful graduates speak more loudly than any promises you try to make.

Next, we need to understand what students expect that will best prepare them for that sought-after career. An assessment in Forbes explains, “Gen Z-ers tend to embrace social learning environments, where they can be hands-on and directly involved in the learning process.”

In our own research, we often hear today’s students describe the value of firsthand learning experiences. They’re also moved by the impact of faculty who take time for mentoring and personal coaching. Educational components like internships, practicums, and site visits have been around for decades, but they take on new dimensions as they are more fully integrated into the academic experience. Also, as students take greater ownership and engage in collaborative agendas, they are putting real-life leadership skills into practice.

If you’re not already, it’s time to develop innovative approaches in the classroom that connect with leading-edge programs in the marketplace. Some of your current students may already be ahead of you on this—let them help you pioneer new ideas. (Then don’t forget to brag about it in your communications materials!)

The time for the campus of the future is now. Are you there yet?


“Earnings and unemployment rates by educational attainment, 2016.” Bureau of Labor Statistics. October 24,2017.

Fry, Richard (2016). “Millennials overtake Baby Boomers as America’s largest generation.” April 25, 2016. Chart: “Births Underlying Each Generation.” Pew Research Center.

 “Getting to Know Gen Z.” Barnes & Noble College.

Kozinsky, Sieva (2017). “How Generation Z Is Shaping the Change in Education.” July 24, 2017.