Youth marketing

5 key insights you need to understand about Gen Z students

Written by
Izzy Hall
Published on
March 8, 2023
Last updated
January 23, 2024

What this article covers

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Gen Z students, higher education and the spending habits of this generation are three trends that we love to talk about at Pion. Understanding this generation's wants, needs and expectations will not only help you to engage with prospective students better, but will also empower them to have the best time throughout their education.

Today, we hear from Ologie*, a marketing and branding agency dedicated to advancing education and partners of our upcoming Youth Marketing Strategy event. In this blog, Ologie share key findings from their recent higher education survey, reveal five need-to-know insights about this generation of learners and share how you can better connect with prospective students.

The last few years have caused large shifts for everyone in society, and that includes Gen Z students. This community is rethinking higher education, how they interact with it, and what they want from it. 

Colleges and universities need to know where these students are coming from and how to reach them. So where are you going wrong, what do Gen Z students want and how can higher education research supercharge your marketing strategies?

5 key insights about Gen Z and higher education

1. Gen Z doesn’t use higher ed vocabulary 

As part of a recent survey, we asked Gen Zers about some tried-and-true higher ed terminology, and we discovered some surprising disconnects. For example, only 45% of students polled were sure what 'undergraduate' meant. Only 27% were very familiar with the term 'FAFSA'. Only 54% were confident about the word 'admissions'. 

And the list goes on. These words may be commonplace when we’re communicating with prospective students and applications, but in many cases, Gen Z students just don’t know what they mean.

In order to resolve this, it’s time for higher education marketers to adapt their vernacular to be more accessible and keep students engaged, rethinking how your content, processes and options are discussed.

2. Gen Z students are more concerned with cost than previous generations

Over the last few years, many families have taken a financial hit thanks to COVID and rising inflation. As a result, Gen Zers are acutely aware of the cost of an education and the debt they’ll be incurring. 

A recent survey from Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse showed that, of the 2,000 undergraduate students surveyed, over 77% of them will be taking on debt from college. Meanwhile, according to Niche and Tudor Collegiate Strategies, 75% of the incoming class of 2022 eliminated certain higher education institutions from their search based on cost. 

Colleges and universities have responded by being more transparent with their tuition numbers and outlining exactly where each dollar goes, but students are still having a hard time justifying the price tag. In order to reassure students - present and future - the higher education sector needs to focus on ROI in order to convince students that pursuing a degree is worth it. 

3. Gen Z is much closer to their parental figures

The COVID years have, for the most part, brought Gen Zers and their parents closer together. As reported by the Pew Research Center, 45% of teens say they feel closer to their parents or guardians than they did before the pandemic lockdowns. The world has made them anxious, and being on their own terrifies them. It's up to us, as brands, marketers and places of higher education, to reassure and empower them.

Gen Z working from home on laptop

The New York Times reported that only 2% of high schoolers believe their social skills are back to normal. And what does that mean for higher ed? These students don’t need to be coddled; they just need to know they’ll secure a place and be supported at your institution. 

4. Gen Z wants lower barriers to entry

Digital natives like Gen Zers are accustomed to a frictionless user experience. It's how they interact with retail brands, purchase things and track their spending. In fact, GWI found that one of the most important factors to drive online purchases for Gen Z is the ease of the actual purchase. 

And the same should be true for their experience in investing in their education. This means removing barriers to enable more students to complete their admissions journey - in fact, some schools are already dropping testing requirements, whilst some are putting cost breakdowns up-front and right where applicants can see them.

Students crave simplicity, and any way that higher education can simplify the process is a huge win.

5. Gen Z wants information first, and fast

Gen Z needs information that’s accessible, especially when it comes to websites. Based on our research, the most valuable things for Gen Z students on a university website are:

  • Virtual campus tours (54%)
  • A list of campus events (49%)
  • Social feeds (38%).

On the other hand, testimonials (30%) and videos of students (27%) were considered less valuable — and less reliable as a source of information.

group of students happy and laughing

This means college students want facts, not fluff. Show them what they want and need to know upfront first, and save the stories and testimonials for platforms where they’ll feel more authentic and less 'packaged'.

The future of higher education

Gen Z’s mindset about education is changing. As colleges and universities continue to recruit prospective students in an increasingly competitive marketplace, it’s more important than ever to understand how. 

The key is to meet students where they are, not where you expect them to be. 

Keen to hear more? The full results of the study will be unveiled at our 2023 Youth Marketing Strategy conference in NYC. Don't miss out and secure your seat now!

*Data from Ologie’s higher ed website research study conducted in November 2022.

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