For many young Americans, college is no longer an aspiration—it’s a source of cynicism. Study after study reveals a widespread distrust of higher education, particularly among members of Gen Z (people who were born between 1997 and 2012).
According to a survey of more than 11,000 US adults conducted by Morning Consult, approximately 35% of Gen Z respondents do not trust higher education. Public Agenda/USA TODAY Hidden Common Ground (HCG) research reveals that 51% of people believe that “a college education is a questionable investment.”
While public trust in higher ed has declined across the board in recent years, Gen Z is the least likely age group to have confidence in this particular institution, according to Morning Consult data.
This is not entirely surprising: members of Gen Z have seen Millennials delay important milestones like buying a home or starting a family due to crushing student loan debt. And in a digital world where employers’ skills requirements are evolving quickly, it’s not always clear whether college is the best route to a good-paying job.
There are also perceptions about equity to consider. As the president and CEO of Lumina Foundation writes in this USA today opinion piece, there is “reasonable skepticism about the fairness of our economic and educational systems, which disproportionately work against Americans who are Black, Hispanic or Latino and Native American.”
At a time when undergraduate enrollment is plummeting dramatically, these troubling trends should serve as a wake up call for higher learning leaders everywhere. Indeed, distrust of higher ed in general can also magnify distrust for a particular institution.
Colleges can’t ignore the specific needs of Gen Z. Even as an increasing number of colleges turn to older learners as a source of enrollment, the youngest age group remains an important demographic: about two-thirds of college students are under the age of 24.
Catering to this age group means looking at their unique needs. Unlike previous generations, Gen Z was born digital. They are also less likely to be persuaded by traditional marketing tactics—preferring instead to hear from influencers they trust on social media.
Any initiative geared towards attracting more prospective students who are members of this generation, then, needs to be digital at its core. Here are three ways to nurture Gen Z’s trust in your institution:
Long before the Internet became ubiquitous, young people were making choices about college based on word-of-mouth recommendations from people they trusted. Gen Z still values recommendations from friends and family, but this digital-savvy group also looks to influencers (people with strong social media followings) when making important life choices.
Higher learning leaders can tap into this dynamic and leverage influencers to foster confidence and develop a school’s brand. At NYU, for example, student influencers regularly “takeover” the institution’s Instagram account to share details about their day and respond to questions from prospective students.
Higher ed marketing teams can also reach out to alumni with large followings. These people can promote recruitment campaigns on their social media channels and expand the school’s reach.
There are many ways to dive into influencer marketing, but no matter which approach is deployed, it’s key to leverage the platforms that Gen Z uses the most. While older generations might use Facebook, Gen Z is more active on video-based platforms like TikTok, YouTube, and Instagram.
The federal government’s plan to forgive student debt might spell relief for Americans who have already graduated, but new and prospective students have other, more immediate college-related financial concerns. Many students, for example, have no option but to delay purchasing textbooks until they receive student aid money.
To address this issue, a growing number of colleges are turning to Universal Learning, a content procurement and provisioning model where content is packaged with enrollment in a class.
With this approach to content, students can automatically gain access to the digital materials at no extra cost or a reduced cost on day one of the course (cost savings can range from 30 to 50%).
The digital format also helps higher learning leaders address the needs of neurodiverse learners, who can benefit from accessibility features like text-to-speech and font adjustments.
All of the benefits of Universal Learning can be communicated upfront to prospective students, so they can understand how it will give them a better student experience and promote learning equity.
Institutions that can successfully help Gen Z students land good-paying jobs will stand out at a time when there is a deep distrust of higher education.
The USA TODAY/Public Agenda Hidden Common Ground research, for example, found “broad support” for accelerated courses “tied to in-demand jobs.” According to an ECMC Group report, “most teens understand the importance of gaining marketable skills and learning throughout their lifetime.”
There are many ways to tackle the employability puzzle, including partnerships with online learning platforms. Louisiana Tech, which boasts high job placement levels, partners with industry players like Coursera and Google to offer its students supplementary micro-credential programs on top of four-year degrees. This addition enables students to gain the in-demand skills they need for immediate entry into the job market.
To draw in prospective students, and track and share student employability data. Those who are on the fence about attending college will be persuaded by memorable, eye-catching statistics on the college website.
Distrust of higher education is a problem that won’t go away on its own. Young people are wary of the cost and time required to invest in an education that might not pay off in the end. But there’s reason for optimism.
Digital tech provides a way to connect with this new generation through social branding strategies, e-textbooks, and partnerships with online learning platforms. With new approaches like Universal Learning, higher learning leaders can cut down on costs and earn the trust of a new generation of students.
Now is the time to overcome one of the biggest barriers to college attendance by building a crucial element: trust.
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