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Students born in the mid-1990s or later are overwhelmingly in favor of going to college, but they’re not too keen on taking out loans to pay for it, a new poll found.

More than 80 percent of the survey's participants – whom the researchers refer to as “Generation Z” – said that obtaining a college degree is important to having a career. At the same time, 67 percent of the respondents said they are worried they won’t be able to afford college and, on the whole, they’re opposed to acquiring student debt. The poll, the fourth in a series of surveys conducted by Northeastern University as part of its Innovation Imperative initiative, is based on the responses of more than 1,000 16- to 19-year-olds from around the country.

A quarter of the respondents said they don’t think any amount of debt is manageable, and 45 percent said that they could only handle debt payments of $100 a month. Nearly two-thirds said they were concerned about being able to get a job and 60 percent expressed concern about having enough money as adults. Nearly one-third of the teenagers said college costs are "not worth it" and that the "costs will outweigh the benefits."

“Cleary they have almost no appetite for debt,” said Mike Armini, who leads the Innovation Imperative initiative. “There’s strong support for going to college, but they're particularly averse to student loan debt. They really see that as the path to success and social mobility, but they’re certainly concerned about the cost. Like many people, they see it as a worthwhile investment, but they’re not as willing to go into debt for it.”

While the study doesn’t identify the exact reason why today’s teenagers might be experiencing more "financial anxiety" and aversion to debt than previous generations, Armini pointed to a likely suspect: the 2008 recession.

“The great recession was a formative experience for this generation,” he said. “They saw their parents or their friends' parents suffering real setbacks. We have to increasingly show what the value is of what we offer. People are still willing to make the investment if they see the value, so we, as colleges, have to point to that value in a much more direct way than we're used to doing.”

The recession may also be behind some of the study’s other findings. More than 60 percent of the respondents said they want to learn about entrepreneurship in college, and 42 percent said they expect to be their own bosses at some point in their careers – a finding that is four times higher than the actual percentage of self-employed workers. “After seeing their parents out of work, they want to control their own destinies,” Armini said.

Nearly 80 percent said their college education should include some form of professional experience, like an internship.

“That’s something that is across ages and all demographics,” Armini said. “Support for experiential learning is always in the 80 to 90 percent range. That’s clearly an area where higher education is moving.”

Northeastern University has long had a cooperative education and career development program. Other colleges are now going even further than helping students find internships, offering funding for research opportunities and other efforts that focus on out-of-class experiences. Last week, Brown University launched an initiative aimed at providing internships, research opportunities, and funding to all freshmen, sophomores, and juniors -- particularly those from low-income backgrounds.

“The profound message that these findings are sending to colleges is that these students want to shape their own journeys in education,” Joseph Aoun, president of Northeastern, said. “We have to shift from a teacher-centered approach to an approach where students can have more control over designing those journeys. They want to design their own majors. They want to be engaged. They want real-world experience. They don’t want to be put in the confines of full-year on-campus curriculum. They want flexibility and innovation.”

But, according to the study, the students don’t mean innovation in the technological sense. In fact, the respondents only displayed mild enthusiasm for the use of technology in higher education. Just over half the students said they thought online degrees would be recognized and accepted in the same way as traditional degrees in the near future.

By contrast, 70 percent of young professionals who are already in the workforce said they could see online degrees becoming just as accepted.

“The caricature of today’s teenager is they live on their phones 24/7,” Armini said. “If you look at the findings, it's more much mixed. They want human interaction, they want to experience friendship firsthand. Many people, including tomorrow’s undergraduates, still want a face-to-face experience.”

Other Findings

  • 73 percent said everyone should have the right to marry regardless of their sexual orientation, and 74 percent said transgender people should have equal rights.
  • 61 percent said the large gap between the rich and the poor is "harmful to their generation," and 64 percent said they thought large corporations and banks control too much money in America.
  • 64 percent said health care should be free for everyone.
  • 73 percent agreed with the statement that "it's better for America to be a place with people of many races and languages, rather than a country that is less diverse."
  • Over half said they were not concerned about climate change.

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