7 Things Admissions Needs to Know About Generation Z

Mar 21, 2016 -

Well, millennials, it’s been a nice run. We’re old news now.

Attention is finally turning away from the “most researched generation in history” and towards our younger brothers and sisters — Generation Z. Born between 1995 and 2010, Gen Z currently makes up a quarter of the U.S. population and are projected to account for 40% by 2020.

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Who are these up-and-comers? Like millennials, Gen Zers are marked by their digital savvy, but that’s where the similarities come to an end. Read on to learn more about who Gen Z is, what they want from higher education, and how your team can tailor your outreach strategies for them.

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Who Is Generation Z?

Also called Plurals, iGen, Post-Millennials, or (according to MTV) The Founders, the oldest of Generation Z are on the cusp of adulthood at 20-21 years of age. And they’re no millennials. While millennials are a “generation of innocence lost,” Gen Z has grown up in the sobering reality of a post 9/11, ISIS-fighting, Great Recession America. They’ve been shaped by technology, social media, political unrest, and their own changing demographics.

Generational speaker Ryan Jenkins sums up Generation Z like this:

Generation Z is the first truly global generation with limitless interests and avenues for learning. They have been raised in a high-tech, hyper-connected, on-demand, and impatient culture. Some experts expect Generation Z’s mantra to be “good things come to those who act.” This self-directed, entrepreneurial-minded, highly educated, and uber resourceful generation will stop at nothing to make their mark on the world.

Don’t make the mistake of confusing Generation Z with their millennial counterparts. Here are seven ways Gen Z is different — and how to tailor your school’s outreach strategy accordingly:

1. Gen Z are the first true digital natives.

Déjà vu, anyone? This was a widely touted claim made about millennials, but let me explain.

While millennials are the first generation that didn’t have to adapt to the technologies of the digital era, Gen Z have never known a world without the internet, smartphones, or social media. Never.

What does this mean for admissions? For starters, a mobile-friendly website is no longer a nice-to-have. Four out of five students will visit your website on a mobile device, and one-third of those students will submit a mobile application, according to Chegg's research. Want to take it a step further? Specialized mobile apps can improve student experience, ease the application process, and create a forum for two-way communication between student and school.

Second, social media has become a crucial part of the college search process. 81% of teenagers are on social media, and two-thirds of them use social media to research and inform their college decision. Go beyond Twitter and Facebook — Gen Z still use these, especially for the college search, but are spending more time on Snapchat, WhatsApp, and Instagram. Focus on visual, snackable content for the best results (and check out this article to learn how to engage students better on social media).

2. Gen Z are practical pragmatists.

Early reports about Gen Z started calling them the “entrepreneurial generation,” and that’s true to some extent. However, their reasons for being attracted to the idea of working for oneself are different than those of the Silicon Valley elite. Gen Z aren’t expressive risk takers like millennials —  they’re “risk-averse, practical, and pragmatic.”

Gen Z are all too aware of the economic climate we live in, and they’re looking for an education that will help them land a stable career. One Gen Z-er told Fast Company, “"I need a job that will come out with money, otherwise college will be a waste. I want to pick a career that is stable."

In Eduventures’ annual survey of 10,000+ college-bound students, students chose “career preparation” as the most important factor when choosing a college, over even affordability, which came in fourth.

Gen Z are looking for careers in growing, secure fields like education, medicine, and sales. Additionally, they’re interested in entrepreneurship for the security that self-reliance brings. Highlight your school’s programs in these areas of study, and focus on tangible results like post-graduation job placement rates. Connecting prospective and current students with alumni who are already out in the job market is another great way to add value (in the form of networking) and ease anxieties about post-college life.

3. Gen Z is the most diverse generation to date.

In 2013, NBC News reported something stunning — for the first time ever, caucasians made up less than half of the under-five age group. Gen Z is more diverse than any generation before it, with a 50% increase in multiracial children since 2000 and explosive growth in the Hispanic population.

U.S. Generations by Ethnicity, 2014

[caption width="800" id="attachment_24949" align="alignnone"]

U.S. Demographics by Generation

Source: U.S. Census Data, July 2014[/caption]For Gen Z, diversity isn’t new or exciting — it’s their normal. They want to attend schools and join companies that celebrate racial diversity and embrace a policy of inclusion. Make sure to highlight your school’s international students, LGBTQ groups, and overall ethnic and cultural diversity. It also means that targeted, segmented messaging will be crucial to attracting students from different backgrounds and helping them feel like they have a place at your school.

4. They’re less tied to parental advice.

According to the Eduventures Annual Survey of Admitted Students, the percentage of students who said parents “strongly influenced” their enrollment decision dropped from 55% in 2012 to 48% in 2014. Raised by skeptical, self-reliant Generation X, Gen Z likely didn’t receive the same oft-maligned pampering that millennials (called the “everybody-gets-a-trophy” generation in this 2014 Pew Research article).

What does this mean for admissions counselors? While parental communication continues to be an important focus, the era of “helicopter parenting” seems to be coming to an end, freeing up your efforts to focus on students.

5. ...But more tied to their peers’ opinions.

If not parents, who does influence Gen Z? Their peers — even those t hey don’t know. Gen Z is peer-driven, even more so than millennials before them. In fact, Gen Z trusts and value current students more than twice as much as they do admissions or guidance counselors, according to Eduventures.

Feed Gen Z’s need for peer proof by activating your school’s natural advocates — students and alumni. MIT has done this by featuring student blogs on its admissions page. Schools like Ithaca and St. Lawrence University have used Instagram takeovers to show the school through their students’ eyes (while also appealing to teens’ preference for visual social media). Finally, Brazen customer Penn State World Campus uses online open houses to connect applicants with students, alumni, and admissions counselors in more intimate, one-on-one chats.

6. Gen Z have 8-second attention spans.

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Recent studies have sensationalized this stat by comparing the average attention span in 2015 (8.25 seconds) to that of a goldfish (9 seconds).  But design and innovation firm Altitude prefers to call Gen Z’s digital ADD a “highly evolved eight-second filter:”

[Gen Z have] grown up in a world where their options are limitless but their time is not. Gen Z have a carefully tuned radar for ... assessing whether something’s worth their time. Getting past these filters, and winning Gen Z’s attention, will mean providing them with engaging and immediately beneficial experiences. One-way messaging alone will likely get drowned out in the noise.

To get past Gen Z’s advanced filters, be brief, engaging, and visual. Focus on multiscreen-optimized, snackable experiences. Invest in video, especially live-streaming, and get right to the point. More than anything, step down off the soap box. Gen Z responds best when they’re invited into the conversation and allowed to be collaborative with you.

7. Gen Z demands transparency.

One of the most interesting differences between what millennials and Gen Z are what types of content resonate with them online. Digital strategist Scott Fogel says that while millennials are attracted to the clever (think Jon Stewart or The Oatmeal), Gen Z tends to connect to the offbeat and raw (think self-deprecating Snapchats or D*mn Daniel).

Scott calls this an “intimate exhibitionism,” but I think it’s something more. 52% of Gen Z lists “honesty” as the most important quality for a good leader. This generation has grown up surrounded by banner ads, dedicated emails, and ads described as content.

They can smell advertising a mile away, so ditch the slick marketing campaigns and stick to what’s most authentic about your school — the people. User-generated content is great, but helping them forge connections with your current students and alumni is even better.

What has your team found to be most effective when engaging Generation Z? Tell us below in the comments!


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