Generation Z’s Are Starting College, But Are Universities Ready For Them?

This aphorism has always rung true, but when it comes to educating the next generation, it’s an essential mantra.

The oldest members of Generation Z — defined by Pew Research as those born after 1997 — are on the cusp of adulthood, and while they’re ready for college, are universities really ready for them? After all, in the same way Millennials presented unique challenges and opportunities, so will Generation Z.

For one thing, as the first generation to not know a world without the internet, Gen Zers view digital media as an indispensable resource. They’re not satisfied with sittingand waiting; instead they choose to investigate and experiment for themselves. And in a few years, this generation will overtake Millennials as the primary demographic enrolled in college. If institutions hope to evolve to meet Gen Zers’ demands, it will require more than updating the computer lab — it’ll take a keen understanding of how they think.

A Multiplatform Generation

We’ve all heard the stereotypes: Gen Zers are glued to their phones. And on one hand, it’s true: Gen Zers are on their smartphones for about three hours every day. When asked to choose, about 40 percent say functioning Wi-Fi is more important than having access to working bathrooms, and approximately half say they “can’t live without” YouTube.

What’s important for higher education to understand, however, is that current students use these digital platforms in more innovative ways than stereotypes would suggest.

Beyond just cat videos and selfies, Gen Zer’s are using social media to connect with like-minded individuals — a powerful proposition for universities looking to build a community. For instance, the Monmouth University basketball team’s viral bench celebrations started on the school’s Snapchat. Eventually, ESPN picked up the story and aired the footage, creating thousands of new Monmouth fans in the process.

Furthermore, the internet is essentially public education at their fingertips. Gen Zer’s are curious in nature, and in the era of fake news, they don’t take anything at face value. They may gather preliminary insights on Twitter, cross-reference that research via Google News, and finally ask their friends for input on Facebook — all in pursuit of an answer.

It’s easy to see this dependence on tech through a cynical lens — as if technology cuts off students’ connection to the “real” world. But technological advancements render interpersonal interaction anything but obsolete. With the ability to reach out to teachers, scientists, and researchers with the click of a button, Gen Z won’t be limited to the resources of individual classrooms.

The challenge for educational institutions is to capitalize on these capabilities. The goal is not to embrace the “coolness factor” and invest in the latest gadgets just because. Instead, institutions might consider focusing on digitally connecting students to the tools that best complement their career goals. New technology, as a result, will then help personalize students’ degree programs and give them the necessary training for their respective fields.

The Diploma’s Changing Status

Historically, we’ve thought of the diploma as graduates’ ticket to the workforce rather than a culmination of their acquired skills. But Gen Z students desire more than a piece of paper, and institutions are charged with engaging students in fresh, hands-on exercises to meet that demand.

Today’s students understand the value of applicable, on-the-job training versus passive, theoretical coursework. It makes sense: They’re part of the most entrepreneurial-minded generation yet. Instilling the tenets of entrepreneurship (and the skills that go along with that) in students is important, no matter what career path they eventually embark on. One way to accomplish that is to offer more relevant, competency-based programs.

I’ve seen firsthand the amount of young people who’d rather get out and do something than memorize flashcards. Our students at UMSL, for instance, frequently accept paid internships to work for clean energy startups in the St. Louis area. It’s a lot of work, but they’re motivated to present pitches and gain experience.

They want to do meaningful work when given the opportunity. Knowing that, we designed our educational model at UMSL Accelerate to combine in-classroom work with peer-to-peer experiential learning and opportunities to contribute to the entrepreneurial ecosystem.

At some point, students will have to sit through a lecture and take notes, but these experiences don’t have to be boring. Instructors can get creative about Gen Zers’ learning style and redesign curriculum to get students thinking like entrepreneurs.

Personally, I aim to keep students engaged in whatever form possible. Even when I’m doing a keynote, a pitch, or some other planned presentation, I make room for an activity. I might start with a question and riff off students’ responses. Anything to keep my classroom interactive will nurture students’ need to create something rather than just sit and listen.

A Shift in Culture

Giving students hands-on experience isn’t just about giving them an outlet — it’s about letting them fail.

As humans, we are naturally risk-averse, and sometimes that fear of failure stops us from even trying. Instilling this perspective too emphatically in younger students could rob them of their creativity and turn them into hypercritical perfectionists.

On the other hand, when students fail, they have a chance to learn from those mistakes and realize that learning never ends. It’s one of the main reasons UMSL Accelerate was established. We wanted to show current students what it meant to be an entrepreneur, and part of that was letting them fail in a safe environment.

Educational institutions, then, have an obligation to change the current culture of fear and help students become effective future leaders. The optimal result is to learn fast and not be afraid to take chances.

There are countless ways educational institutions can adapt to Gen Z’s learning style, but it all starts with understanding what this generation wants out of higher education. When institutions understand this, they can embark on a journey to shift the status quo and evolve with students.