Elle Fanning, Malia Obama and the singer Lorde qualify — as do Kylie Jenner, Bella Thorne and Cody Simpson. Born between the 1990s and the 2000s, they’re all part of the next most significant generation to attract the attention of marketers and educators. They’re Generation Z, or Gen Z, the ‘Sharing Generation,’ and from what we’re beginning to learn about them, they’re so significantly different from any other demographic that has come before them that they offer both challenges and opportunities for the future direction of higher education. The distinctive behavior traits that so characterize this generation have recently been explored in a newly published research study from Barnes & Noble College titled, Getting to Know Gen Z: Exploring a New Generation’s Expectations for Higher Education and, as the oldest members of Gen Z are now in high school and preparing to enter college, there’s never been a better time to examine their likely impact.
Growing up with computers and the World Wide Web, Gen Z has also been variously dubbed the Internet Generation and Digital Natives in acknowledgement of their level of comfort with all kinds of technology. “They’ve grown up in a fast-moving, ultra-connected age,” explained Lisa Malat, Barnes & Noble College’s VP of Operations and Chief Marketing Officer, at a recent University Business webcast that launched the new report. “Every answer they’ve ever needed has always been at their fingertips. They really are the ultimate do-it-yourselfers, and if this is the way they live, we shouldn’t expect them to learn any differently,” she added.
Research shows that every generation sees more value in a college education than the previous one, and Gen Z is no different — 89 percent of the survey’s respondents indicated a college education as valuable.
But while they may very well orchestrate their social lives via texting and social media, and spend more time watching YouTube than network television, education is also something that this generation takes very seriously. “Research shows that every generation sees more value in a college education than the previous one, and Gen Z is no different — 89 percent of the survey’s respondents indicated a college education as valuable, so more likely than not, these students are headed to campus, and we all need to be ready,” Malat said.
That passion for education is based in a highly adult sense of realism as Tamara Vostok, Barnes & Noble College’s Director of Consumer Media, pointed out. “We found they’re truly passionate about the importance and value of education, especially as it relates to finding a job and preparing them for a career,” she said. Helping them gather the information that they need to select the correct college for their career is in Gen Z’s highly collaborative nature, a characteristic that first came to light when Barnes & Noble College began their interest in researching this demographic through an earlier research project with the VCU Brand Center. “They’ll look online, and to teachers, family and friends for their input,” Vostok said, “but ultimately, they’re independent thinkers — a big contrast to Millennials who want to share everything,” she added.
That sense of planning is reflected in the survey’s statistics. Almost half of the older students surveyed have already taken a class for college credit, which reflects their need to be as prepared as possible for the future. They’re also more business minded. “They’re extremely entrepreneurial. We found that more than a third of older students either already own their own business or plan on starting one in the future,” Vostok said.
But is Gen Z just the latest in succession of new generations? At the University Business webcast, Andrea Eveland, Student Research Consultant for Barnes & Noble College, highlighted some other distinct differences between Gen Z and their Millennial forebearers. “They’re more financially driven than Millennials, and having seen their parents live through the economic uncertainty of the past decade. That uncertainty shapes their attitude about money, education and the need to secure a good job,” she explained.
Despite the trend of DIYL — (do-it-yourself learning), the Barnes & Noble College research reveals that Gen Z doesn’t want to learn in a vacuum. “They still value face-to-face interaction and collaboration with their peers, and that’s extremely important in how we think about the future of education,” Vostok said. For Gen Z, it seems that learning is a continuous, multi-faceted experience, and one that’s best experienced when it’s hands-on. Those expectations, together with Gen Z’s technological preferences, may seem daunting for educators when adapting the classroom experience. But rather than a perceived threat, Malat sees these character traits as representative of a significant opportunity for the future of higher education. “These students have a love of education,” she said. “They want to be pushed — they want to be engaged — because that’s when they really start to thrive.”
So if the current crop of under 18-year-olds doesn’t quite inspire you yet, it might be worth remembering that Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani activist for female education, and the youngest-ever Nobel Prize laureate, is also part of this group. Clearly, as a generation of movers and shakers, Generation Z is only just getting started.