Published on 2018/10/19
The EvoLLLution | Immediacy, Outcomes and Impact: Shifting the Institutional Focus Towards Generation Z
As Millennials graduate and enter the workforce, colleges and universities must recalibrate their traditional programming and services to meet the expectations of the Gen Z students coming through their doors.
Moore’s Law states that computing power doubles every 18 months. While this is regularly framed in terms of its impact on industry and the workforce, colleges and universities are becoming familiar with its impact on a different level: generational expectations. As Generation Z (Gen Z) students are now graduating high school and enrolling in degree programs, they are bringing with them a level of tech-savviness, customer expectations and outcomes focus that were typically reserved for non-traditional audiences. In this interview, Kasey Urquidez shares some insights into a few of the defining characteristics of Generation Z, and reflects on what it’s going to take for colleges and universities to serve them.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are some of the most significant differences in the customer experience expectations of Gen Z learners compared to those of Millennials and older generations?

Kasey Urquidez (KU): Generation Z is a population of thoughtful, loyal, open-minded and responsible people. They are unique individuals who like to be part of something bigger than themselves. They have been raised with the reality of terrorism by growing up in the post-9/11 world. They grew up in households where the recession may have hit hard or they may have had family friends who suffered from a loss of employment. They likely have parents and guardians who are passionate about safety and connectedness. Since birth, they have had access to technology. These are all extremely important factors for colleges and universities to consider when enrolling and retaining Gen Z students.

Customer experience expectations have always been very important, but they may be even more critical when serving Gen Z students and their families. One of the differences is that Gen Z students expect to be met where they are. Gone are the days of sending out a mailer and relying solely on getting a response card back in the mail to know if a student is interested in the University of Arizona. Gen Z students want to be courted. They want to be wanted for their unique qualities and attributes.  How do institutions do that? It must be done in a variety of formats—print, digital, text and in person. While we may expect Gen Z students to want everything in a digital format, many want something tangible and personalized. This means that colleges and universities must deploy a variety of outreach methods to ensure students are able to receive the information in the format that best suits them—and continue to express our desire for them to enroll.

Additionally, Gen Z expects authentic, personalized communication. These students have grown up with a deep understanding of how marketing works, and their expectations have adapted as a result. A “one size fits all” approach to materials and events will likely not meet their needs or expectations.

Gen Z individuals are savvy in distinguishing mass communication from personalized messaging. They are comfortable communicating with our recruitment team on social media and often inquire about important details via Snapchat and Instagram. They view authentic text messaging and video chat communications to be as personal as an in-person conversation, and transparency is key. Similar to Millennial and older generations, there is an expectation of quick and thorough responses.

Evo: How do their expectations differ from older generations when it comes to their academic expectations, especially around program selection and outcomes? 

KU: The University of Arizona is seeing more and more applicants and enrollees with an understanding (or belief) of what they want to do post-graduation. Many of them have participated in work or internship programs as a part of their high school education and have a solid idea of their desired profession. They are interested in their return on investment and are eager to get in and get out.

Gen Z students tend to be very career and/or graduate school focused. They are looking for academic programs that best align with the career fields they plan to enter and see little value in entering college without a major. In fact, while University of Arizona enrollment is up overall for 2018, the number of first-year students who entered without a major is significantly down. Since 2016, enrollment for our “undecided” major is down 34 percent. These students are still coming to Arizona, but they’re opting to select a college and/or major from day one.

Combined with their academic interests, Gen Z students are driven to institutions by the experiences those academic programs can offer—such as study abroad, leadership opportunities, internships and engagement experiences. Gen Z students are aware that their hiring potential is driven by their academic and “real world” experiences, and they are asking us very specific questions about their potential opportunities if they were to attend. Luckily, the University of Arizona has an answer, as we offer 100% Engagement opportunities to all of our students. Gen Z students also want to hear from current students and young alumni to “prove” our messaging is on point.

Some Gen Z students are still exploring their academic interests and are looking for self-guided or digital resources that they can browse independently, which highlight careers associated with specific academic programming. They also want to be able to access these resources any time of day or night, so it’s important to showcase them in an easy and accessible digital format.

Evo: From an enrollment management perspective, what do you expect to be some of the most significant challenges that colleges and universities will face in trying to serve this demographic?

KU: The University of Arizona has seen an increase in applications for undergraduate admissions year over year. In fact, the percentage increase from Fall 2017 to Fall 2018 alone was 19 percent. I have worked in the enrollment world for over 20 years, and have seen student behaviors toward applying change dramatically. No longer does an application mean a student is really planning to attend your institution; instead, it has become what I call the “super inquiry card.” Institutions have to continue to recruit students well after they have applied: after they are admitted, after they deposit, and even after they have come to orientation! Even the first few weeks on campus are still a critical “recruitment” period for Gen Z students, and value messaging will be a strong asset to universities and colleges. As with marketing and messaging, recruitment efforts must be authentic and offer opportunities that are a step above the competition for a price that makes sense for the family.

Gen Z students are well aware of the rising cost of higher education. Institutions must constantly demonstrate the value of education and emphasize the return on investment that students can expect to receive. Students are extremely hesitant to take out loans, regardless of the type, and expect to be educated for a cost that will be returned in their future.

The other challenge that colleges and universities will face from Gen Z students is the notion of a general education curriculum.  Students and their families are often looking for direct employment post-college and wonder why they must take the time to invest in such broad areas of study before they can dig into the heart of their major coursework. There are many arguments about the merits of general education, and I am not advocating either way, but as an enrollment professional, this is questioned more often than it ever used to be.

Evo: What are some of the key changes postsecondary institutions need to make to ensure they’re prepared to serve incoming Gen Z learners?

KU: Listen to your students. Gen Z has a thoughtful worldview and is keenly aware of what is happening around them. Their experiences have made them open and prepared to share what they need (and expect) from a college or university. We must be authentic and individualized, which often takes more time and more money. The University of Arizona has made significant efforts to increase the authenticity of our messaging by utilizing the experiences of our current students and young alumni. We have increased the personalized experience by changing our digital communications, mailers and programming. Even the photos and images we use have become more genuine and less typical, highlighting the student perspective from mediums that current students are using, such as Go Pros and selfie images. Looking outside the marketing boundaries of what we have done in the past has been and will be key to adapting to the future.

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Key Takeaways

  • Like previous generations, Gen Z expects quick and thorough responses to inquiries, but they expect those responses to be delivered across a much wider and more diverse range of platforms.
  • Unlike previous generations of traditional learners, Gen Z students are laser-focused on outcomes, employability and their next steps upon enrolling in freshman year.
  • Gen Z students are more open to transferring and leaving, which means the practice of “recruiting” never truly ends for this population of learners.