How Can College Stores Serve the New Student Culture?

October 31, 2018


cultural shifts


The greatest change collegiate retailers face these days has struck everyone in higher education: A shift in campus culture. The student population is more diverse than ever before. Not only is the latest influx of young people born after 1995, known collectively as Gen Z, the most multicultural cohort in our nation’s history, an increasing number of non-traditional students — veterans, adults, first-generation students and others — has begun pursuing post-secondary degrees.


Whether they’re administrators, faculty or retailers, higher education professionals welcome the change. But it’s also forced a reckoning with campus traditions that remain unresolved. One area that has experienced tremendous disruption is college retail.


Adapting to Changing Demographics

Once, a college education was primarily the purview of the privileged. White, middle and upper middle-class students planned for higher education. Their parents saved or borrowed for their books, tuition, and room and board. Four-year students typically started college right out of high school at about age 18 and graduated around age 22. Most higher education services — from curricula and counseling centers to cafeterias and bookstores — were designed with this population in mind. Retailers could expect students to buy their course materials because that’s how things worked: In college, you pay for your books.


When non-traditional and Gen Z students started arriving on campus, things changed. Education professionals began reconsidering assumptions they had made in the past. As students felt more alienation, experienced additional outside pressures, or simply got lost and dropped out, it became apparent that the traditional college or university had not been set up for students from diverse backgrounds. Intentionally or not, higher education was operating with an outdated model.


Barnes & Noble College Insights™ has conducted extensive research on Gen Z and non-traditional students, which informs its choices and services. The Achieving Success for Non-traditional Students report explored the needs and perspectives of this cohort. The study looked at students over age 25, who worked full-time, were first-generation, had dependents, were veterans, held GEDs or non-standard high school diplomas, or were distance or online learners.


It found that 89 percent of those surveyed said they consider college “moderately” to “very valuable.” These students want to be in school and they want to succeed. However, they face challenges traditional students do not. It’s easier for non-traditional students to feel disconnected from the campus community, sometimes because they live or work full-time off campus, or they simply don’t feel like they fit in. Over 58 percent of the non-traditional students surveyed reported that they feel stressed and 76 percent said they feel like life is out of balance. It’s clear that colleges and universities need to address these students’ unique needs if they want them to stay in school and succeed.


The Evolved Campus Store

For campus retailers, the new student culture presents a positive challenge. Forward-thinking college stores offer students an experience that is tailored to their needs and provide course material services that help students prepare for class and to succeed. From racial and ethnic diversity to an influx of non-traditional students, most colleges and universities have begun to acknowledge these cultural shifts — and recognize that increased diversity in education brings greater opportunity for all.


Barnes & Noble College stands out among collegiate retailers as being ahead of the cultural curve, serving as student hubs with cafes, and offering community events like faculty readings, scavenger hunts and VIP Shopping events with well-informed staff on hand to help students navigate course material options. Research on non-traditional students and Gen Z has prompted stores to organize De-Stress events and gatherings intended to help students form supportive social networks that inspire them to stay in school.


College stores devoted to student success look to understand this new campus cultural shift — and invest in building tailored programs, products and services that address the needs of a changing student population.



Conversations with Gen Z




Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.