Gen Z Makes the Rules: The Influence of the Current Generation on Higher Education

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Generation Z has many distinguishable qualities. One of the most unifying qualities of Generation Zers is their ability to deftly use any form of technology placed in front of them. Described as “digital natives”, this generation grew up with technology in their hands. They see their devices as an extension of themselves and their identity. As such, their social media is a reflection of their character, likes, and personal brand. These influencers show every moment of their glittering life on Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok. However, Generation Z has done much more than simply influence their peers. In fact, the collective personality of Generation Z has and continues to influence the landscape of Higher Education. 

Often times, when discussing universities and potential students, we assess the relationship in a one-sided fashion. We note rising tuition prices, elusive application processes, and increasingly unlucrative majors. In other words, we examine the ways in which American colleges and universities affect students; seldom do we think about the ways in which each passing generation affects colleges. The relationship between colleges and college-aged students is far from one-sided. In fact, in many ways, the relationship is actually quite evolutionary and symbiotic—especially in the case of Generation Z. The influential generation has forced colleges to modernize their culture and learning capabilities to fit Generation Z students’ overarching lifestyle choices, identity, and values. 

Dave Doucette’s EdTech article “Meeting the Educational Demands of Generation Z,” states “Generation Z is accustomed to personalizing everything, from Netflix shows to food at fast-casual restaurants. That leads to the expectation, in other spheres, that iGens will be able to pick and choose what they want (and, just as important, what they don’t want).” Gen Z’s love of Netflix proves true. Nina Aghadjanian’s article in a.list proves it. Netflix is Gen Z’s second favorite brand—falling just behind Google. As such, these students expect their collegiate lives to mirror the highly customized life they’ve lived thus far. And colleges are responding. The article cites a University Business survey, in which a whopping 66% of education leaders— including deans, faculty members, and vice presidents— are exploring ways in which they can use Artificial Intelligence (AI) to leverage student data and personalize the learning experience. Of that group, another 44% plan to use the highly personalized Netflix platform as a template to engage students through video and information recommendations based on students’ interests. IBM is also embarking on their journey to a customizable education for all college students with an AI interface that analyzes student’s progress and addresses “knowledge gaps.” Colleges, now more than ever before, recognize the power of individuality for Gen Zers. They want to be seen as their own, autonomous being and expected to be treated in a similar way. In response, schools are rapidly finding solutions to their ‘every student is the same’ model. 

More Integration of Technology in Classrooms for Professors and Gen Z Students to Connect

In addition, Gen Z’s penchant for all things online has also transcended their social lives. These students want and expect up-to-date learning materials that meet them where they’re most comfortable: with a device in hand. “4 changes colleges are making to adapt to Gen Z” reported that Ohio State University distributed 11,000 iPads to incoming freshmen for their iPad-only courses. Students’ iPads will also help them as OSU plans to create an app that includes transportation and campus maps, campus organization information, and more. Furthermore, the university has teachers like Nicole Kraft, who takes attendance via Twitter and hosts online “office” hours via Zoom. EdTech’s article cites professors at the University of Iowa, who use active-learning classrooms. These classrooms allow students and teachers to share information simultaneously to “empower students through collaboration.” The New York Times’ Screens in the Classroom: Tool or Temptation” cites several examples of professors using technology to help their students, particularly education majors. Perry Samson, a professor at the University of Michigan uses an app to help him understand how many students are confused in class—in real time. Powered by a back-channel program he designed, students can submit anonymous feedback to him while he is teaching. 

Gen Z Demands More Support Services for Mental Health

Colleges are also responding to students’ growing and more serious concerns about their mental wellbeing. Many Gen Zers see mental health as one of the most pertinent issues in their generation. In fact, 70% of students report noticing anxiety and depression within their peers (according to The Economist’s “Generation Z is stressed, depressed, and exam-obsessed”). Another study performed by the CDC found an increase in the number of young people who experience persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.

In response, colleges “have ramped up their mental health services to meet increasing demand from students,” according to Forbes article, “Addressing Mental Health Challenges on College Campuses”. Now more than ever, students are looking to their future college campuses to support them in times of trouble. In fact, a report by the Penn State University found that counseling center utilization in the United States increased by 30-40%. And in an attempt to get ahead of the curve, the University of California – Los Angeles has created a program, Screening and Treatment for Anxiety and Depression (STAND), that offers screenings and efficient treatment for students with anxiety, suicidality, or depression. Other schools like Davidson are outsourcing less severe cases of mental illness to make room for students with severe cases. As this problem continues to grow amongst Gen Zers, they will continue to seek out colleges with the best support services for them. 

These services are far from afterthoughts for these students. The Chronicle for Higher Education’s report “The New Generation for Students” states “Gen Zers tend to want fewer comforts and more supports […]”. And much like their education, they want easily accessible resources through platforms they understand. The report says “Gen Z seeks convenient resources for tutoring, career development, and mental health, for example, with on-demand virtual services available on mobile devices.” While these issues were not as important for previous generations, Gen Z recognizes it as an increasing issue that must be addressed throughout their college experience.   

Generation Zers know what they want. They want a customizable, technologically-infused education with a giant helping of mental health services. These students are young, hungry, practical, and unapologetically uncompromising. They have a list of demands for the colleges and universities they choose to attend and they are not afraid to use their power and influence to get it. 

Gen Z Makes the Rules: The Influence of the Current Generation on Higher Education

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