Op-ed | Colleges in New York should embrace Gen Z’s vision for education

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Higher education has a generational challenge.

College enrollment among Gen Z students — loosely defined as anyone born between 1997 and 2012 — is shrinking. And it’s no longer a dip brought on by the pandemic, but a trend, with students questioning their return on investment.

“I don’t need a college degree to be successful” is the prevailing thought, according to a recent YPulse survey. Middle schoolers think more highly of work and high school experience, with just 38% saying they need a college degree to get ahead.

This is a generation that was forced to adapt to remote and hybrid learning during the pandemic. They value diversity and representation. They’ve watched as graduates — including parents and siblings — struggled to repay student loans with salaries that haven’t kept pace with inflation and rising tuitions. They’ve seen the sacrifices that come as a result, such as putting off the dream of home ownership.

So, the question isn’t, “What can we tell Gen Z to get them to care about college?” Instead, we should ask, “How can we assure that college is worth it?”

We’ve innovated before in higher education. Since the early 1990s, successive waves of students ushered in new ways of learning and living, shaped by technological innovations and societal shifts. Personal computers, once tucked away in computer labs, became ubiquitous on campuses thanks to the tech-savvy Generation X. The smartphone-driven, interconnected lifestyles of Millennials gave rise to the modern “ed tech” sector. Suddenly, schools were embracing online tools for research, teaching and collaboration.

Young people made their preferences clear; colleges and universities responded by making dramatic changes in stride. But Gen Z is still waiting for their big pivot.

They seek representation. A recent Pew Research Center study showed that Gen Z is the most racially and ethnically diverse generation to date, and they’re more likely to apply to a college that reflects diversity on campus and in recruiting materials.

They seek flexibility. According to Google’s data on Gen Z behavior, most are now accustomed to online learning platforms. LinkedIn’s insights reveal a staggering 86% of Gen Z enrolling in online learning.

They seek relevance. Last year saw a surge of traditional-age college students enrolling in fully online universities, including schools like nonprofit, accredited Western Governors University, that offer career-aligned, competency-based programs in which students can accelerate their studies once they’ve proven mastery of the material. WGU doubled its enrollment of 18- to 24-year-olds from 6,000 in 2017 to 15,000 in 2022. 

Gen Z also seeks a return on investment. With Federal student loan payments set to resume in October, Gen Z is once again confronted with the harsh realities of educational debt. Their generation has around 13% more student debt than Millennials, and paying off loans is among their top concerns after graduation.

Colleges and universities in New York — along with state policymakers — should embrace Gen Z’s vision: an education that is accessible, inclusive, flexible, relevant and affordable.

That can mean doubling down on community college partnerships to lower the total cost of a four-year degree, aligned to programs that are often tied to specific regional workforce needs.

It can also mean investing in innovations such as online competency-based education, introduced at scale in the late 1990s. This model has been proven to increase diversity, maintain flexibility, and reduce tuition and student debt. It’s a way of learning that others can surely emulate or build upon to start restoring Gen Z’s trust.

Higher education has reinvented itself for previous generations. A quality education is still the key to attaining upward mobility and preparing for a fulfilling, prosperous career. There’s no doubt that in the long-term a college degree will continue to be a worthwhile pursuit. The 2020 median income for residents of New York with a bachelor’s degree was approximately $62,600 compared to a median income of $33,300 for high school graduates without a college degree. These income and opportunity gaps compound annually and span generations.

Let’s do the innovative work to ensure we’re not just reaching Gen Z, but delivering on our promise of a better future.

Rebecca L. Watts, Ph.D., serves as a regional vice president for Western Governors University.