Selling College to Generation Z

pexels-photo-267885Greetings from the American Marketing Association’s Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education in beautiful Atlanta. Thirteen hundred higher ed marketing and communications professionals have gathered to learn and share best practices for recruiting students to their institutions of higher learning. That’s a lot of people whose job it is to tell other people that they should go to college.

It was at this conference in 2012 that Donald Heller, who was Dean of the College of Education at Michigan State University at the time and our luncheon keynote speaker, had this to say:

“For the first time in your industry, you, as marketers, are being asked to do something you never had to do before—justify the value of a college education.”

Up to that point, it was widely accepted that a college degree—in anything—was a good investment that would pay out over time. But in 2012, with college costs out of control, a student loan debt crisis and an economy in a slow recovery with a very soft job market, he was right. It wasn’t enough to sell our own institutions. We had to sell college as a good idea.

Five years later, it hasn’t gotten easier. In response to the issue of the value of a college education, educational alternatives such as massive open online courses (MOOCs) and skills-based education (micro credentials and badging) have become increasingly popular. These disrupters, along with a renewed focus on the trades as viable paths to lucrative careers, have changed the conversation about what post-secondary pathways look like.

We also have a generation of high school students that are far more skeptical of the value of college than perhaps any generation that came before. Generation Z watched their Millennial counterparts graduate college and “boomerang” right back to Mom and Dad’s house with poor job prospects and a big student loan bill. They watch their Generation X parents—the most indebted generation–write their own student loan payment checks while trying to save for their children’s education.

As college became more accessible in the second half of the 20th century, each generation has been more educated than the one that came before. That trend could break with GenZ. They’re true digital natives who grew up with any information they wished to access literally at their fingertips, mostly for free. To them, the prospect of four years (or more) in a classroom seems unnecessary. The numbers bear it out: 75 percent of Generation Z believes there are other ways of getting a good education besides going to college.

It certainly presents a challenge for the people whose job it is to sell college, but it’s one we can rise to. As higher education responds to the needs, expectations, and demands of this generation (and it is responding, albeit at the speed of academia), there are messages that can resonate with Generation Z in the short term:

Affordability: GenZ is a pretty financially savvy generation. They’ve already started to save for retirement. They are price sensitive and have high expectations of price to value. Prospective GenZ students are heading straight to the net price calculator on college websites and cost is a major factor in their decision-making.

According to a 2017 study produced by the Center for Generational Kinetics, 24 percent of GenZ students plan to pay for college through personal savings in an effort to reduce their reliance on student loans. Additionally—nearly 40 percent of GenZ students intend to work while they go to college.

For higher ed marketers, this means emphasizing a value message. Highlighting flat or discounted tuition rates, scholarship information and on-campus employment hold sway with this generation.

Practical skills: Members of Generation Z are as pragmatic as their Generation X parents. They want to know that their college experience is going to be meaningful to their post-college life. According to a 2014 study by Northeastern University, 63 percent believe it’s important for colleges to teach entrepreneurship and 85 percent believe they should learn about financial literacy in college. There is also a high expectation of access to experiential learning opportunities as early as their first year of college.

Many institutions are responding to this demand and building these types of learning opportunities into the curriculum. For those that are, highlighting these elements can bring a competitive advantage in the recruitment of Generation Z.

The intangibles: I am not just a higher ed marketer, I am also the GenX parent of a GenZ high school junior who knows that the linear path of four-years-of-college-after-high-school-graduation didn’t work out so well for her old mom. As she herself questions the value of college, she’ll remind me that after I flamed out my third semester, I stopped out and worked part-time and full-time jobs for several years before I realized that a college degree was something that I wanted to attain. Then I’ll tell her about the things I learned in college that had nothing to do with classroom content: time management, navigating complex institutions and dealing with others who have perspectives and experiences different than my own. These are things I wished I learned much earlier than I did in the working world where the stakes were higher.

If that were a college course, it would be “Adulting 101”. For Generation Z students, college is a place to acquire these practical skills in an environment where it is okay to learn some lessons the hard way. It gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “learning outside the classroom”, a phrase that higher ed marketers are particularly fond of.

As a higher ed marketer for a community college (full disclosure) I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how well-positioned community colleges are to respond to these needs. Shorter times-to-completion, an emphasis on applied learning and lower tuition costs tick many of GenZ’s boxes.

In discussing such issues with colleagues from around the country from colleges and universities large and small, it was widely acknowledged that reaching students of this generation cannot depend on messaging alone. As an industry, higher education has an opportunity to reexamine if the model that has been in place for decades—centuries in some cases—is the one that can be sustained in an era of rapidly changing technology, globalization and increasingly specialized industry needs. The best viewbook in the world can’t be an effective substitute for a relevant offering—and Generation Z is savvy enough to understand that.



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