This is a guest blog post by Jonah Stillman, a generational subject matter expert and advisor to Blackboard on Gen Z preferences and behaviors. Leveraging the extensive research he conducted with his father, author David Stillman, in addition to his own experience as a high school senior applying for college, Jonah provides expert insights on Gen Z expectations for college and the workforce.

The next generation of college students has arrived and it’s time to get to know us. The leading edge of Gen Z (those born between 1995 and 2012) is already in their 20s, yet for some reason no one is paying attention to us. Now, some might say that’s fine—we’ll just treat them like millennials. But my research and experience tells me that will backfire.

We are not millennials

Each generation is shaped by events and circumstances that result in a unique generational personality. Take millennials for instance, who grew up before 9/11 while the economy was expanding. At that time, they were told that if they work, they would be a winner. Compare that to Gen Z … and, whoa, things are different. Gen Z grew up in a time where things weren’t as pretty. Post-9/11 and after the 2009 great recession, we learned that there are such things as winners and losers. As a result, differences like these have given us a different outlook on the world—including college.

Money matters

In the past, students often came to a college to “discover” themselves. My dad tells me that he went to college thinking he was going to be an FBI agent or a pediatrician and ended up getting a degree in journalism. This is not the case with Gen Z. Sixty-one percent of Gen Z that we surveyed said they believe they need to decide on a career path before entering college.

One might say that seems like a lot of pressure for an 18-year-old—and it is—but there are reasons for this. During the 2009 recession, many in Gen Z witnessed our Gen X parents struggle to get by, as the average net worth of a Gen X parent fell by 45%. Gen Z understands the value of a buck and we believe that if we’re going to spend money on a college degree, we better know what we want to do so we can get it done as fast and affordably as possible. Classes such as art history or Greek civilization, while I’m sure are very interesting, may not be seen as relevant by Gen Z because they are so focused on the past. Gen Z needs to see a direct connection between what we are learning and how it applies to our future.

This may be why Gen Z has shown great interest in trade school. The average cost of a four-year bachelor’s degree in the United States is $133K compared to a trade school degree cost of $33K. If you know that you want to be a plumber or work in construction, Gen Z sees no reason why you should pay the extra $100K just to say that you have a bachelor’s degree. We would rather learn a skill quickly and get to work applying it. 

To go or not to go?

In the past, at a young age kids were told that there was one path to success—you go to college, get a degree, and get a job. But is this the truth? Gen Z isn’t so sure.

Seventy-five percent of Gen Z believes there are ways of getting a good education other than by going to college at all. What this means is college isn’t going to be as easy of a sell as it had been in the past. We truly are the DIY generation. Think about it—Gen Z has grown up in a world where if we want to learn how to speak Swahili or retile a bathroom floor, we can log onto YouTube and teach ourselves how to do anything. Colleges are really going to have to put in the work to convince a prospective Gen Z student that attending their university will give them an advantage they wouldn’t be able to find elsewhere.

Yes, we are different

Getting to know Gen Z may be more important than you thought. We are drastically different from millennials, which means we won’t respond in the same way to money, educational programs, and campus life. It’s important to keep this in mind as higher ed institutions shape and define the student experience for the next generation.

JONAH STILLMAN (Gen Z-er) is a seventeen-year-old high school student and currently the youngest speaker on the national lecture circuit. He has already shared his insights on Gen Z with MSNBC and CBS, and with companies in a variety of industries. He is the co-author of Gen Z @ Work: How the Next Generation Is Transforming the Workplace, to be published by HarperCollins in March 2017.

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