Olive & Co

Understanding How Generation Z Shops for College

Generation Z comprises one of the most sought-after audiences in today’s marketing landscape. Rarely do we scroll through LinkedIn or Twitter without stumbling upon an article outlining all the ways in which this generation (born after 1999) is starkly different from all previous generations. If Gen Z operates so differently than generations past, higher ed institutions need to consider these differences to better engage the audience.  

The differences between traditional higher education landscapes and more modern approaches extend far beyond chalkboards versus screen sharing or typewriters versus iPads. The stark contrast between the traditional higher ed landscape and today’s modern, technology-driven approach to education is precisely what will capture (and keep) the attention of incoming students as they shop for a school to attend—if you know how to position it.

Every higher education institution—whether it’s a four-year university, community college, or trade school—offers something unique to incoming students, and, rightfully so, every institution is proud of its unique offering. But is your institution promoting its offering in a way that resonates with incoming Gen Z students? Are you highlighting the right features of your school, or are you missing the mark?

5 Questions Gen Z Students Ask When Shopping for Colleges:

Is it affordable?

Many millennials are buried in debt, much of which accumulated during their time in school. Incoming students who comprise Generation Z have watched their older peers accumulate—and struggle to pay off—this debt, and are worried what rising tuition costs might mean for them. Continuing education directly after high school is no longer a given, and cost is a primary reason.

As a marketer, determining tuition rates is well outside your job description. Instead, your challenge is to effectively communicate your institution’s value to prospective students. It may be expensive to attend your school, but if students understand its value, they are more likely to accept the impending 10.5 years of student loan payments that follow their education.

Does it incorporate technology?

Online courses allow nontraditional students—students who commute, students with families, students with full-time careers—to fully immerse themselves in your institution’s academic programs without ever having to set foot on campus, if they so choose. Even the “standard” classroom at today’s higher ed institutions typically incorporates online elements in some capacity, whether it’s the use of web-based tools like Moodle or Blackboard, or simply requiring students to submit their work via Turn-It-In, which checks essays for plagiarism.

Incoming students among all generations may choose to enroll in online courses to save time in their busy schedules, so they can learn from home and save themselves a commute, or simply to learn in the evenings after work.

In order to attract the Gen Z audience, it is vital you showcase the ways in which technology is weaved into incoming students’ classrooms and resources. Does a first-year student have the opportunity to complete their general education courses online? Let them know!

Is collaboration valued?

Generation Z is rapidly changing the traditional college landscape, demanding more from their classes, professors, and campus community. One such demand is driven by this generation’s increased desire to collaborate with other students, professors, and professionals in the area.

A study by New York University found that students not only perform better, but retain information better when they collaborate with one another in the classroom. Compared with a 5 to 10 percent retention rate in traditional, lecture-style classrooms, students’ retention increases to 50 percent when they play a more active role in their learning.

As a marketing professional, it is important to not just spout off that your institution values collaboration, but to create a space—online, in print, and via email—that fosters collaboration between prospective students and campus itself. Ask yourself how your messaging works to make students feel as though they have a more active role in the application and enrollment process at your school, compared to competitors’ schools.

What’s it like around town? 

In addition to affordability, location is one of the most important factors younger students consider when shopping for a college to attend. They want to know not only what’s on campus, but what surrounds campus.

As a higher education marketing professional, it is important you and your team communicate to prospective students the social opportunities available to them. Are there places nearby where students can get part-time work experience? Are internships available? What about volunteer opportunities? Find out how current students spend their time in between classes and highlight these spaces online—through your blog and social media posts.

You can easily share photos of nearby shops, restaurants, and other venues on your social media accounts, or call out upcoming events on your website’s calendar. Incoming students will be excited to see how your campus is integrated into the greater community as they search for and compare higher ed institutions.

Are students treated as individuals?

Students who fall within the Generation Z demographic want to know they are valued. Even at large institutions, students want to feel as if they are not just a number. You’ve probably heard that this generation is “lazy,” or “unaware.” Actually, these students are starving for environments in which people unite around differences and embrace these differences to tackle problems from new perspectives.

Be sure to engage students early in their search, making them feel like they belong as they consider different schools. If you make them feel wanted from the get-go, they are more likely to come back for more information later, and eventually, enroll in your institution. 

Recruiting and Retaining Gen Z Students

Understanding what the Gen Z audience looks for while shopping for an institution to attend will make your marketing stand out from the crowd. Remember, incoming students want to know whether your school is affordable, where it’s located, whether it offers online classes, and if collaboration and individuality are valued. If your digital and traditional marketing materials answer these questions, you’ll lead the way in recruiting and retaining Gen Z students’ interest as they consider which college to attend.

Erika Voeller
Erika Voeller
Erika is passionate about content creation and brand growth. As a copywriter, she uses her talent for writing to help elevate brands. When she's not writing, you'll find her practicing yoga, exploring Minneapolis, or sipping on iced coffee.