With Gen Z headed to college, questions of where and how to adapt

Today's teenagers will set foot on campus with a unique set of preferences for learning

Generation Z values higher education. Nearly 90% say a college degree is important, and the key motivation for continuing coursework after high school among today’s teenagers is the prospect of a good job. Generation Z is also known for its aptitude with technology and history of independent learning.

What does this mean for colleges? Perhaps a lot.

“Generation Z is clearly looking for and anticipating a different experience as part of the whole college process,” said Lisa Malat, chief marketing officer and vice president of operations at Barnes & Noble College. “These students grew up as digital natives, they grew up with technology. That’s how they live their lives — they live in a very social, online world.”

Barnes & Noble College conducted a survey of nearly 1,300 middle and high school students, ages 13-18, in 49 states. The ensuing report, “Getting to know Gen Z,” highlights the career-focused educational goals of this next generation of students, as well as their love of learning, preferences for collaboration, and comfort with technology.

At Onondaga Community College, Julie White, interim provost and vice president of student engagement and learning support, finds generational differences also come with important consistencies. White has watched Generation X and Y cycle through the Syracuse, NY, institution's classrooms during her career in education and expects the core needs and values of Generation Z to remain centered on an engaging educational experience. What that educational experience looks like has changed in the last 20 years, but much of what Gen Z seems to want is consistent with what White sees as effective teaching and learning: multimodal formats, collaboration, and opportunities for sharing, as well as independent thought.

Onondaga Community College recently opened the WhiTn3y Commons, offering a collaborative, technology-infused workspace for students in business courses. Professors are finding the setup to be more engaging for students, and White says the college is looking to develop more spaces that move away from the traditional classroom environment.

But in a community college setting especially, college administrators have to take information about Generation Z with a grain of salt. Next year, when the oldest members of this latest generation walk onto college campuses, they will not be a majority. Even in four years, they probably won’t, given that “nontraditional” students are becoming increasingly common on college campuses.

White says the needs of Onondaga Community College students when it comes to technology are already polarized. And in some cases, there is a reason to resist adapting processes to student preferences. White says one example is with email — the youngest students don’t want to use email as the chief communication platform. But for professionals in virtually every industry, email is the way to go, and students need to prepare in college.

“It’s a push-pull,” White said. “We need to push them, but we also need to push ourselves to think of new ways to communicate.”

A little adaptation on both sides seems unavoidable as Gen Z takes its place in the higher education world.

Would you like to see more education news like this in your inbox on a daily basis? Subscribe to our Education Dive email newsletter! You may also want to read Education Dive's look at 6 steps to improving community college outcomes for men of color.

Follow on Twitter

Filed Under: Higher Ed Technology
Top image credit: Symrise