The Class of 2020 Brings New Preferences and Expectations to Campus

October 10, 2016


Class of 2020



As the Class of 2020 settles into the rhythm of their first semester at college, what are they discovering about their new campus and the learning and social opportunities it affords them? Familiarizing themselves with an environment that is very different from the high schools or jobs they’ve just left, how might the student journey they’re just beginning already take a different course from that of this year’s graduating class?


Learning Their Way

One very obvious place where change is most influencing the college experience is in the classroom, as colleges and universities begin to more firmly embrace technology in teaching. More technology in the lecture hall or lab is a change that this year’s freshmen class is already familiar with, having already used laptops, tablets and multi-platform digital learning experiences since middle school and high-school. “In the print versus digital debate, Gen Z just might be the group that finally tips the scales,” explains Barnes & Noble College Research Specialist, Steve McSpiritt. “Our research has told us that, typically, Millennials prefer reading in print by a four-to-one margin over digital,” he adds, “but 46 percent of Gen Z students have already used tools like e-textbooks and adaptive learning in their classrooms, with over 80 percent finding them very or extremely helpful.”


Changing Demographics

Although Gen Z is just now hitting college campuses across the country, another demographic is growing on campus — and online: non-traditional students. According to the Center for Post Secondary Education study, non-traditional student enrollment is projected to grow more than twice as fast as traditional-age students (8.7 percent and 21.7 percent respectively) from 2012 to 2022. “As student demographics continue to shift, we felt it was critical to gain a better understanding of this particular student population,” says Lisa Malat, Vice President and Chief Marketing Office for Barnes & Noble College, in reference to their new Achieving Success for Non-Traditional Students report. “These findings help define and compare educational paths between traditional and non-traditional students, and will also be helpful to college and university administrators — and the higher education industry — to improve success for non-traditional students.” Non-traditional students are described as learners who might be juggling higher education with a full or part-time job, or those looking to retrain between careers, pick up their education after active service in the military, or those with responsibilities of managing children or other dependents. Malat’s advice to colleges and universities on how to deal with this growing demographic is to “stay relevant and connect with students in a personal way based on their own journey.”


Healthy and On-the-Go Snacking

Even ‘Digital Natives’ have to eat, and Lisa Shapiro, Barnes & Noble College’s Director of Café and Convenience, believes that this year will see a continuation in the popularity of some perennial snack favorites, along with some new cravings freshman will consider all their own. “Some staples that students have always traditionally turned to are developing their own popularity,” Shapiro points out, citing the phenomena of bar snacking.


As a food group, Shapiro says that bars have met the essential student criteria of being portable, snackable and easy-to-eat —and  on-the-go between classes — yet the category is growing with brand extensions such as meat jerky options and, increasingly, greater protein options. “Good protein is really, really important to our students — not just for athletes, but across our entire customer base of students who are looking for something that doesn’t have a lot of calories, but has that extra nutritional benefit.” She points to best-selling products like Quest Bars, a brand firmly targeted at the young, health-conscious consumers, and which is proving popular not only with students, but also faculty and staff who regularly visit the campus store. Also, alternative protein options such as beans, chickpeas, quinoa, and nut butters are appealing to this more knowledgeable generation of consumers who are also demanding packaging transparency and cleaner ingredients.


Less Talk, More Pictures

There are changes also afoot when it comes to how students share their college experiences. Social media has become a staple in the way students communicate, but it’s likely the Class of 2020 will be keeping the chat to a minimum. “When we moved to status updates on Facebook, posts became shorter,” says Dr. William J. Ward, Social Media Professor at Syracuse University. “But then micro-blogs like Twitter came along and shortened our updates to 140 characters, and now we’re even skipping words altogether and moving towards more visual communication with social-sharing sites,” he says.


This trend toward the visual is something also being tracked by Sandra Webb, Social Media Specialist at Barnes & Noble College. “Instagram will likely have staying power with Generation Z just because it is so visual,” she points out. Pew research found that 53 percent of young adults aged 18-29 are using Instagram and logging high engagement levels — nearly half (49 percent) of all Instagram users reported daily activity.


Webb also points to better technology, higher definition cellphone cameras and video-sharing as influencing the trend. And students aren’t just using their devices to keep in touch. Compared to just three years ago, the portion of students on college campuses using mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablets to study, climbed to unprecedented levels, with an 81 percent jump between 2013 and 2014, according to research from McGraw-Hill Education and Hanover Research.


Learning by Doing

No matter what members of the Class of 2020 are experiencing in their first few weeks of campus life, it’s clear these students already have some uniquely different levels of drive and initiative to their predecessors, as McSpiritt acknowledges. “Fifty-one percent prefer to learn by doing as opposed to seeing or listening,” he says. “These students need a high level of engagement and they’re willing to put in the effort to be successful.”


Taking education into their own hands with resources like YouTube and MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses) — these websites allow students to learn new skills and take college level courses online — for free in most cases — and while they may not have taken off in the mainstream yet, Gen Z is jumping in with enthusiasm. For Gen Z, learning is one continuous, multi-faceted, completely integrated experience — connecting social, academic and professional interests.


They’re also blazing their own trail on the nation’s campuses in this, their freshman year, with college administrators and faculty responding with social and academic opportunities uniquely tailored to the shifting needs of the Class of 2020.



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