Confuse Them at Your Own Risk: How Gen Z Students Differ From Millennials

RJ Nichol
May 14, 2020

If you want to come across as outdated, out of touch and unconcerned about the future of your college or university, just work with your “Generation Z” applicants the same way you’ve been interacting with millennials.

Of course, a better strategy would be to recognize the key differences between these two cohorts of students and then adjust how your institution communicates with them and tries to address their needs. That’s particularly important these days, as recent studies have indicated that many of today’s applicants and students are reconsidering their college future in light of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. You don’t want to lose students because your communications with them didn’t resonate.

Who’s who?

The age ranges may vary by a few years depending on the sources you consult, but generally speaking, millennials are defined as those born between 1980 and 1995, whereas Generation Z comprises those born between 1996 and 2015 (or so).

To better understand the differences between the generations, however, it may be more informative to focus on what has occurred during their lives rather than simply look at their dates of birth.

For example, some demographers suggest the most significant demarcation between the generations is Sept. 11, 2001, which many members of Generation Z do not recall. Others believe the defining difference is the economic environment in which they grew up. While millennials are more likely to remember a childhood played out against the backdrop of a relatively prosperous economy, Gen Z students and applicants are more likely to recall the financial hardships that burdened millions of families — perhaps including their own — during the “Great Recession” that began in 2008.

Consequently, Generation Z is more likely to place a high value on the return on investment provided by a college education. Whereas millennials may have grown up thinking about college as an experience to be savored for its own sake, Gen Z students are more inclined to think about the future financial value it can provide via access to jobs that pay well.

What does it mean for higher ed?

As a result, Generation Z is more likely to be concerned about long-term financial security — and see college as essential to success in life. Consider the differences in the generations’ responses to the following statements:

“My goal is to make it to the top of my profession/future profession one day.”
65% of Generation Z said “yes,” compared with 43% of Millennials.1

“College is an important stepping stone for future success.”
67% of Generation Z, 61% of Millennials1

“I can have a rewarding career without going to college.”
25% of Generation Z, 40% of Millennials1

The two generations also prefer to learn differently. For example, 59% of Generation Z says YouTube is their preferred way of learning; 60% of millennials prefer printed books. And despite their love of social media, members of Generation Z are less likely to prefer taking online classes whenever possible (26% vs. 45%).1

Despite a lack of research on the topic, anecdotal evidence also suggests that the parents of Generation Z students are much more involved in the college selection process than older parents. Furthermore, some admissions professionals believe that Generation Z has unprecedented expectations of customer service during the application process. That may even include a belief that schools are responsible for collecting application materials, rather than an understanding that students are responsible for submitting them.

Making marketing matter

In order to connect with Generation Z, colleges and universities need to meet them on their own terms. First of all, that involves developing highly personalized, omnichannel digital communication strategies to reach them before, during and after the application process. Those strategies shouldn’t be limited to students, though. Considering the major role their parents are likely to play in the decision-making process, it’s a good idea to conduct parallel marketing campaigns for each household: one for the Gen Z student, one for the parents or guardians.

Once you have their attention, focus less on trying to sell them on the experience of attending your school and more on emphasizing the long-term financial benefits. Remember, to them, paying for college is a major investment. They want tangible outcomes, such as good jobs and a rewarding career path. They don’t want to be underemployed after graduation, struggling to pay off student loans. To demonstrate the value of a degree from your school, consider showing them how much graduates earn once they enter the workforce.

Finally, keep in mind that Generation Z has largely upended the traditional notion that a college needs to be a “good fit” for a student. Instead, they want to know if they will be a good fit. That means your application process needs to focus on who they are as people, not just on their grades or how great your campus is. Encouraging Generation Z students to share what’s important in their lives — such as by encouraging them to upload multi-media portfolios that illustrate their passions and personality — lets them know they’ll be valued on your campus. Without that guarantee, you run the risk of losing them.

1Source:, Beyond Millennials: The Next Generation of Learners, 2018.

RJ Nichol

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