• Shelley Kurland

Meeting Our Newest Generation of Students Where They Are - Gen Z, "The Influencers"

Interestingly, conversations regarding “newer” employees and college students often still center around millennials even though the following generation - Generation Z - has just recently entered the workforce. The oldest members of Gen Z (sometimes referred to as iGen and Centennials) are born in 1996 or currently around the age of 23. They are a large - over 23 million in the U.S. - and influential group. Despite their young age, Gen Zers are already disrupting “how we do business” in many sectors, including higher education. I know this first hand as I have two daughters who are members of Gen Z.

Members of Gen Z grew up with social media so they tend to “live” online, especially via their smartphones. They are also considered as “cloud natives”, not “digital natives” as Millennials are considered. Think about it, Gen Zers interact with family and friends via social media (favoring SnapChat and Instagram), make major purchases (i.e. cars) and learn via online platforms (i.e. YouTube and Google Suite). When was the last time you saw a Gen Zer with a flash drive? To be honest, I am not sure if my daughters know what it is. We can certainly harness the extreme comfort level with the online environment in higher education, especially in distance education. 

Even though members of Gen Z are either kids, adolescents or young adults, research through The Center for Generational Kinetics show that they are more pragmatic than Millennials, increasingly self-aware, self-reliant, innovative, goal-oriented and network both digitally and face-to-face. In addition, Gen Zers want to make a difference in the world and they are the most diverse generation to date. Gen Zers are lifelong learners and understand the importance of education. Furthermore, research also indicates that they will mostly likely be highly educated. Gen Zers expect higher education institutions to provide learning opportunities that will prepare them for their careers. In addition, Gen Zers anticipate their learning journeys to involve interesting coursework and professors who care about their success. 

Gen Zers are comfortable with web-based research and often utilize sites like YouTube and Pinterest to self-educate, one video at a time. Gen Zers take ownership in their personal learning. They want to learn new things, to be involved in the learning process and are open to new ways of learning. According to Barnes & Noble College’s 2016 report, Getting to Know Gen Z - Exploring Middle and High Schoolers’ Expectations for Higher Education, the majority (51 percent) of Gen Z learn by doing and only 12 percent learn by listening. With that in mind, it is essential that educators engage them in the learning experience and when possible incorporate active learning opportunities or they may begin to question the value of the class.

It is important to highlight that Gen Zers are informed consumers and tend to be more fiscally conscious. They value quality for their money. Gen Zers understand that they have a lot of options and will conduct research prior to committing to the product and/or service. Higher education is no exception. According to the Getting to Know Gen Z report (Barnes & Noble College, 2016), the top five ways they search for colleges are:

  1. Online college resources, such as College Board, College Greenlight, MyMajors, etc.

  2. Higher education institution websites

  3. Advice from teachers/counselors

  4. Consult with parents/family members

  5. Talk to friends 

Gen Zers have a “if ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mindset, which aligns with their brand loyalty tendencies. It is very difficult to get Gen Zers to change brands as trust is really important to them. It seems that friends, family members and identified “influencers” are key members in Gen Zers’ life that have the capability to sway their “loyalty”. Also, keep in mind, Gen Zers have no problems sharing experiences - good and bad - via social media. Their loyalty and willingness to share pose both opportunities and challenges to higher education institutions.

Lessons learned from my daughters, Gen Z and workplace research have me reconsider on how to have rich conversations with educators to rethink how to develop the entire journey of the student life cycle and designing learning experiences that meet where the Gen Z students are.

Gen Z information for this blog is from

The Center for Generational Kinetics

Webinar: The Rise of the iGeneration and Its Impact on Higher Education

Presenter: Jim Fong, Chief Research Officer 

Center for Research and Strategy, University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA)

Image ©2015 Abhijit Bhaduri. Uses under CC license from Flickr.com 


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