Gen Z, the demographic cohort after millennials, has a lot in common with adult learners—more than you’d think. Sure, Generation Z members are obsessed with YouTubers and interact on Snapchat instead of Facebook, but they are also highly practical and focused on making sensible decisions that lead to good careers.
In that aspect, students born between 1996 and 2012 are like adult nontraditional students. Gen Z students want to go to college, graduate quickly, and land a good job—sound familiar? Both groups are highly motivated by career outcomes, and both carefully weigh student debt against future salaries.
This is good news for institutions looking to court both traditional and nontraditional students. Since the two groups have much in common, many of the higher ed marketing strategies that bring in adult students also attract traditional Gen Z students. Below are four traits of Gen Z and the marketing messages—which have traditionally been targeted toward adult learners—that also speak to them.
Gen Z is focused on career training
Like their adult learner counterparts, Gen Z students attend college in order to get jobs and advance their careers. A 2015 study by Barnes & Noble College showed that the number one factor in choosing a college is career preparation.
They lean toward practical degrees that lead to financial stability—even if that means leaving behind a more attractive but less career-oriented degree. According to Lincoln Financial Group, 72 percent say that having a job that pays well is very important to them, even more than having an inspiring or challenging career.
A New York Times article highlighted a number of Gen Z members who felt that the economic stress of the Great Recession made them more mindful of their own career outlooks.
“I definitely think growing up in a time of hardship, global conflict and economic troubles has affected my future,” said Seimi Park, a 17-year-old high school senior in Virginia Beach. Park always dreamed of a career in fashion, but she has recently shifted her sights to law because it seems safer.
“This applies to all my friends,” she said. “I think I can speak for my generation when I say that our optimism has long ago been replaced with pragmatism.”
Given Gen Z members’ tendencies toward pragmatism, messaging to them should emphasize the practical outcomes your institution offers. Show how your degree programs are highly attuned to the current and future job market, use stories and alumni quotes to demonstrate how your institution teaches highly marketable skills, and highlight how your institution connects students with potential employers through internships and other business community relationships.”
Gen Z is financially conservative
Members of Generation Z worry about student debt as much as nontraditional students do. According to a 2016 report from Lincoln Financial Group, 48 percent of Gen Z cite this as a financial concern, with 56 percent saying they worry about getting a job after college.
Gen Z students also actively seek the financial stability that is so important to adult learners. In fact, their top three priorities are getting a job, graduating from college, and saving for the future—above spending time with family and friends, eating healthy, or exercising.
To appeal to these students, you should be upfront with information about tuition and fees, but emphasize the robust financial aid your institution offers; help students understand the components of financial aid packages so that they can make wise financial choices; and additionally, emphasize how the skills students will learn are in high demand in the job market. Both Gen Z and adult learners need to be confident that the investment they make in college will quickly pay off in their careers.
Gen Z faces demands on time and attention
While much has been made of Gen Z’s short attention span, the consulting firm Altitude contends that this is a filtering mechanism evolved to manage the overwhelming amount of information available to them. “I have limited time, so I need to make the most of it,” explained 16-year-old Sneha.
It’s true that the demands on a 16-year-old’s time are different than on those of a student juggling full-time work with a college education. However, both Generation Z and adult learners agree that they need to buckle down and work hard during the time they have. When Gen Z members look ahead toward an undergraduate degree, they say they want to finish in four years (or less) so they can get into the workforce and find a stable job. In other words, both nontraditional and Gen Z students want to make money, not spend it.
To best reach Gen Z students, your messaging should highlight your institution’s accelerated programs, flexible start dates, and credit for work or military experience, as well as use alumni case studies to demonstrate that students can move through their education efficiently and enter the workplace sooner.
Gen Z wants to relate education to workplace skills
Adult learners who have been employed in the real world know they need to translate their education into work-related skills. Despite their young age and lack of workplace experience, Gen Z students understand this too. They seek programs that identify and nurture the marketable skills they’re learning in academic disciplines.
There are two approaches to this. One is to pursue a multi-purpose degree. According to the Altitude study, an ideal degree offers broadly applicable skills that are in demand across multiple professions. Said 17-year-old Laura, “My dad said that college is a great thing to fall back on because even if you lose your job, you’ll still have that degree.”
Another approach is to provide highly focused, efficient instruction that results in a degree, certification, or portfolio students can show prospective employers. Coding camps and online vocational programs are popular with both Gen Z and nontraditional learners because they can be completed quickly and yield projects, certificates, or degrees that demonstrate students’ mastery of the skills.
In either approach, the best faculty coach students on how to think about their classroom learning in terms of marketable skills. Higher education programs need to put Gen Z students on the path to professional success.
Your institutional messaging should assure students that faculty offer more than traditional coursework and grading: they also mentor and guide students preparing to advance in real-world careers. Show how online classes, boot camps, and certification programs are cost-effective and yield demonstrable expertise.
Growing enrollment for Gen Z and adult students
The challenge for colleges and universities going forward will be creating enrollment growth campaigns that reach both nontraditional and Gen Z traditional students. Will institutions fashion a single set of assets that speak to both audiences, or will they craft separate campaigns that reach toward different segments but reflect the same underlying messaging? Both approaches can be effective when higher ed marketers build on adult and Gen Z learners’ utilitarian approach to education.
Nicole Larkin is Content Strategy Manager at Helix Education.