Gen Z’s rise means the old way of recruiting students is officially over

Enrollment managers who spent the last decade focusing their recruiting attention on Millennials are now playing catch-up as the new generation of prospective students, dubbed “Gen Z,” are ushering in a new era of campus marketing and recruiting.

Gen Zers were born between 1995 and 2010, which means they are the target market for many universities looking to attract and retain a traditional first-year student population. So, what makes Gen Z tick?

Gen Z, like Millennials before them, are known as a “connected” generation. They constantly view a variety of digital communications and use them to make decisions. However, that doesn’t mean they perceive the world like Millennials do. In fact, they display many pragmatic decision-making traits that more closely resemble Baby Boomers than Millennials.

Millennials, many of whom started school before or during the financial crisis, viewed attending college as a natural progression on the road to a successful life. Gen Z watched their older brothers, sisters and cousins graduate with mountains of debt. For them, watching Millennials blindly accept the absurdly high cost of tuition was a cautionary tale. They remember the effects of Great Recession and watched those same brothers, sisters and cousins struggle in the workplace.

History teaches tough lessons. Recruiters convincing Gen Zers that four or five years of college is worth the investment will have their work cut out for them. Gen Zers understand that a college education alone will not set them apart. They want proof that your institution can deliver the value it says it does. For enrollment managers and marketers, the quality and consistency of your message strategy will be more important than ever.

That message should focus on:

  • Communicating the value of an institution

  • Placement data that show this major investment will deliver a valuable return

  • Career services and opportunities to thrive

  • The “big picture” of getting an education

For many colleges and universities, the old message – that college is a time of exploration and self-reflection – is no longer an economic reality for students. Simply getting a bachelor’s degree will not exclude students from the workforce’s hurdle, even in great times. It’s important that you are talking substantively about how your university differs or excels in areas that supplement the classroom experience, like:

  • Internship placement programs

  • Student organizations and their value

  • A “full-package” college experience.

Delivering the full package should focus on enhancing the educational experience in a way that gives students a leg up after graduation.

Based on what we already know about Gen Z, there are two key elements to success with them.

Accessibility – Accessibility ties together the “connectedness” of the generation; they want to find you on social media, access your websites from a mobile device (they may never see your site on a full screen). Likewise, personalization is not just a trend, but the expectation. Recruiters will have to dig deeper in terms of how to better collect targeting data and harness it to create more specialized communications that meet the research needs of Gen-Zers exploring your university

Perceived value – Universities absolutely must do a better job communicating the value they deliver to students. Gen Z students know how to do their research. A nice campus won’t cut it. They want to see the real information that backs up your value claims.

It’s important to understand there is a caveat here: That doesn’t mean they want a long white paper or a 10-minute video. Think infographics, a video series or utilizing Instagram Stories. Give Gen Z the information it wants in the format they want – when they want it. This is the key to breaking through Gen Z’s higher ed skepticism, and understanding it will be essential for the survival of more traditional university models.

Sarah Mittal, Ph.D. is a consumer behavior expert who studies the psychology behind consumption. D. White & Company is a higher ed marketing consulting firm that helps align your institution's brand with its strategic goal. Want to schedule a discussion? Contact us and let's get started