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Reframing the Student Success Conversation to Serve Generation Z Students

The EvoLLLution | Reframing the Student Success Conversation to Serve Generation Z Students
As a new, younger generation of students begins enrolling in higher education—one that has never known a world without the internet and for whom smartphones are standard technology—the approaches that universities take to acquiring and retaining learners needs to evolve.

The emerging literature on Generation Z (Gen Z) students highlights how different they are from previous generations of students that have entered higher education. Gen Z students are more ethnically diverse, with a greater number of biracial and bicultural students among them. They are a more socially conscious generation, and more than likely grew up in urban areas where they were exposed to the vibrancy of difference. Because they also saw the effects of the recent recession, Gen Z students question whether or not a college degree reaps a return on investment, which has shaped their expectations of higher education.

Born between the mid-1990s and the late 2010s, Gen Z is the first generation to never experience life without the internet, and the smartphone has revolutionized the way they interact with the world. Whereas other generations relied on multiple outlets (e.g. TV, print, radio, etc.) to gain access to information and entertainment, Gen Z students have come of age at a time when social media funnels information from multiple outlets through one handheld device. Given this access, Generation Z individuals are often described as seeking instant gratification or having a short attention span.

Institutions of higher education have capitalized on Gen Z students’ overreliance on the smartphone and social media to market themselves and their services. They use Facebook groups to create a sense of community among a newly admitted class in an effort to increase yield rates. They use YouTube and other outlets to give prospective students a glimpse of life on campus, and employ hashtags to trend events across multiple platforms or to promote school spirit and pride.

Although the integration and capitalization of social media has been seamless for some student-facing units, others have fallen behind. For example, many key student support services do not take their web presence into account, often neglecting to question whether or not their webpages are mobile friendly or content heavy. Email outreach gets lost in students’ inboxes or is never opened. During focus groups that we conducted with current University of Washington undergraduates, students mentioned that the subject heading determines whether or not they read an email. Based on that feedback, we revised the language we use in our emails. Using software like MailChimp, we can track which correspondences elicit the highest student response rates and adjust our approach as necessary.

Another consequence of Gen Z students’ smartphone usage is that has it redefined their ability to engage with a new environment. Since they are able to text any time and mobile applications have revolutionized “the phone call home,” Gen Z students are able to maintain the relationships they had prior to arriving at their college or university. Previous generations had to proactively engage with their new environments and forge relationships with their peers at school. With Gen Z, however, students tend to hold onto past relationships longer. As a result, they are beginning to report greater instances of isolation and the sense of not belonging on their campuses. This lack of connection to the campus community could have serious implications on their retention and overall success at the institution.

Due to the integration of technology and personalized communication in their lives, it is important to consider not only the individual but also the system (process, policy, protocol) when working with Gen Z students. When institutions engage in a discussion about retention and student success, the focus is usually centered on student persistence and outcomes. Rarely do these conversations address institutional culture and the processes, policies and practices that, directly or indirectly, affect a student’s ability to progress towards a degree.

For example, consider when an institution notices a decline on first- to second-year persistence rates. On the surface, conversations attempting to address this particular gap bring up issues of academic preparedness, family support, financial need, the intersectionality of students’ identities, etc. Consequently, interventions that stem from these conversations attempt to close this achievement gap by addressing perceived student deficiencies and providing direct student support.

What is problematic about interventions that emerge solely based on a student’s profile and outcomes is that they run the risk of operating on a deficit mindset, where students bear the blame for their attrition and lack of success. Instead, a more appropriate framing of a conversation that aims to close an achievement gap should acknowledge both the profile of the population in question and an assessment of the institutional environment that may hinder student success. Adequate questions to ask would be: What institutional practices are in place that make it difficult for students to access the support they need? Are students making satisfactory academic progress during each term? Is the institution delivering the engaging experience it promised to prospective students?

When it comes to Gen Z students, it is imperative to think about the “retention and student success” conversation. Asking questions that consider both the institutional context as well as the students themselves as active agents in student success is important to ensuring there is no misalignment between students’ needs and available support systems. Institutions looking for a guiding framework on how to do this can turn to Kalsbeek’s 4 P’s Framework. The 4 P’s framework redefines and reframes the retention and student success conversation by focusing on four distinct aspects: Profile, Process, Progress and Promise.

We are entering a new era in the higher education landscape, where we need to consider not just the services we offer but also whether those services are properly meeting students’ needs. In the case of Gen Z students, a failure to adapt existing practices and understand how these learners choose to engage with their environment could lead to the assumption that they did not access support services because they didn’t want to—as opposed to the institution failing to meet the students where they were.