It’s tourist season on America’s college campuses. Many of the 16-20 million high school students from around the world are cramming in as many campus visits as possible during the coveted spring break of a HS student’s junior year. According to higheredtoday.org, roughly 66% of the America’s HS students will immediately enroll in college.
I’m one of those campus tourists, and as stressful as it is for both parent and child, it’s enjoyable (when we don’t get lost). I’ve toured over 15 colleges and universities this spring alone with my college-bound Gen Z student (think National Lampoon Vacation in an Avis compact bickering over use of phone chargers) . We’ve toured all kinds of campuses from MA to TX – greeting hippies to preppies, visiting tiny to massive and trying out ghetto to garden settings.
But as a social researcher specializing in Gen Z, my approach to the tours has been a little more intense. I’ve conducted research, both playful and analytical, to better understand the trends influencing a student’s college choice. For example, to better assess the student body, I’ve evaluated things like personal style – pearls, blazers, tattoos, and # without razors; news preferences – FOX, CNN, WSJ or NYT; substance abuse – are they high or hungover; red or blue – Trump vs. Hillary or graffiti like the above at GW; and of course, smiles. How many kids are smiling? Important things.
According to futurists and academics, Generation Z has very high potential to lead, and possibly save, our society – because they have more altruism, strong leadership skills and financial control. As a result, Generation Z’s college-bound student is under a lot of pressure to select and get into a school of their choice. Here are a few trends that are influencing college choices for the Gen Z college-bound student:
Yesterday’s Safeties are Today’s Reaches: According to the NCES, “total undergraduate enrollment in degree-granting postsecondary institutions in the US increased 31 percent from 13.2 million in 2000 to 17.3 million in 2014. By 2025, total undergraduate enrollment is projected to increase to 19.8 million students.” (And 3+ million more international students depending on Trump’s travel ban).
While enrollment increases, acceptance rates are at record low. Top schools encourage everyone to apply, and the Common App lets everyone apply which drives down the acceptance rate. Early in the process, students believe they have a chance at their Ivy League dream school and I hear many visit them all. Eventually, admission statistics alter this mind set for many, leading Gen Zs to visit a second or third set of colleges that are more realistic targets, despite being yesterday’s safeties. Most are highly impressed by “yesterday’s safeties”. We were blown away by several of the lesser known schools that are rising up in ranking.
Highest Anxiety: With application rates at a record low, all eyes on test scores and GPA, plus near impossibility to get into your dream school, it’s no wonder Gen Z has so much anxiety. Good news is that Gen Z teens are doing less self-medicating – 38% decline in substance abuse according to the aecf.org – but faced with more mental health challenges like anxiety and suicidal thoughts. Thirteen Reasons Why is getting more attention than snapchat this month. What’s going on in Lexington, MA proves just how high anxiety levels are: “The problem is not anecdotal. In a 2015 national health survey, 95 percent of Lexington High School students reported being heavily stressed over their classes and 15 percent said they had considered killing themselves in the last year. Thinking about it most often were Asian and Asian-American students — 17 percent of them, as is the case nationally.”
Students aren’t the only anxious ones. Many touring students and their parents appeared to be very nervous, with mostly parents asking questions about AC or laundry, while nervous prospects looked either embarrassed, some eager, way too young to be there, zoning out, asleep, or dressed for a soccer game. In several cases, the tour guide talked about campus safety, all-nighters, double majors and double minors, 6 Internships through junior year, and the fact that students enrolled in certain schools (like Business) are too booked to do a semester abroad. Intense, but at least you get your money’s worth.
Feminization of Campus and Careers: There are 20.5 million students in college as of 2016: 57% are female, 43% are male. This is evident even on campus tours where 70% of our tour guides are college girls. Majority of touring students on our tours (liberal arts, business, you name it) were girls, primarily at Catholic colleges. Why fewer boys? One reason is the top professions for a college graduate are stereotypically “feminine” jobs like teachers and nurses’; girls go for male jobs but males are not interested in “female” jobs. And in other cases, girls have higher scores which drives up the colleges’ rankings and quality of the student body. Also, vocational schools and gap years are growing in popularity, giving students a breather from the intense pressure.
Demonstrated Interest, or “Hello, It’s Me Again”: There’s always a couple kids schmoozing the tour guide like it’s nobody’s business. Well those kids are smart because that handshake is counting as a “DI point”, or a mark for Demonstrated Interest. Common App, letting anyone and everyone apply online remotely, has made it harder for a student to demonstrate their insane desire to attend THIS school, or their interpersonal skills. Thankfully, colleges are noticing “DI” which is particularly good for kids like my son who has stellar social skills. Students want their top choices to know who they are, and colleges want to know who REALLY wants to attend. Anyone can hit the Enter button. One junior girl just scored her 10th DI point with her top college by getting recognized by her Admissions Rep. She was so ecstatic, her mother said, “you’d think the Admissions rep is a movie star on the red carpet”. I hope she gets in.
These are just a few of many trends that influence Gen Z’s college choice. Two major factors influencing choice include Outcomes, the likelihood a student will graduate with a secure job; Internships, the ability to intern at top companies which may result in a job. Other obvious and monstrous considerations are the cost of attending even if a student does get in; the risk of becoming homeless if you can’t afford to stay in; social media and how frequently does a student connect with the college; fear among international students to commit in this uncertainty and fear among colleges to commit to international students. Other influences are the colleges primary political party and stance on free speech.
At the end of the day, my Gen Z, and most Gen Z students, seem wired to be successful no matter where they attend college or what they choose to do after high school, or with their life. It comes down to taking the above influences seriously and making the right choices. Let’s help Gen Z reduce their anxiety over the college process and remind them that college does not define who you are. College is a bridge to adulthood, not the end of the journey. We all need to keep a healthy perspective on this process. You may not get in, but no doubt you’ll get a pretty postcard to pin on the board of the college you choose to attend.