Generation Z Applies Early Decision to Everything

Generation Z Applies Early Decision to Everything

Today is a very important day for high school seniors in Generation Z.  It’s November 1, the date when Early Decision and Early Action college applications are due. Today, Generation Z is submitting more than an application to attend a college or university; they are submitting an application to get a career. I call it Early Decision to Everything, or EDE. Ambitious high school seniors have been preparing for this day for nearly a year:  writing essays, getting recommendations and now, researching majors and careers so they can begin their careers in college.

Last week I conducted focus groups among 50 highly motivated high school seniors from diverse socio-economic backgrounds to discuss intended college majors and potential careers.  A whopping 80% of these seniors proudly declared their college major, majors they identified by their junior year in high school, as well as what they want to do with their college degree, their desired outcomes.  The majority provided substantial evidence for why their major is the right one for them, for their future.  David, a business major, wants to specialize in management consulting because, he articulates, “I have an extremely quick learning curve, I’d be superb with clients and consulting will pay me the salary I need to pay back college loans.”

Of these seniors, 70% have selected majors with outcomes most likely to guarantee them a job upon graduation, majors including Business, Engineering, Forensic Science, Marine Science and Pre-Med.  Several are seeking careers that make a difference in an uncertain society, planning to secure jobs with the CIA and the FBI or in public health.  These seniors, older Gen Z’s on the spectrum of students age 7 to 21, know what they want to be when they grow up and work hard to identify their careers as early as freshman year in high school; many took career tests freshman year of high school.

Why the laser-focus on a career, and thus declaring a major as early as 10th grade?   I asked this group why they are so determined to identify, and stick with a major and a career path at this point in time, before they have taken courses of their chosen destiny.

First, they want to avoid instability and ambiguity in their lives by taking control of what they can, and their career is one thing they can control. Their formative years, filled with live streaming events of uncertainty and financial instability, certainly shape who they want to become.  And while many showed interest in “saving the world” and “making an impact”, many strive to do so if they can make money at the same time.  According to Lincoln Financial Group, 72 percent of Gen Z stated that a high paying job is more important than having a challenging or inspiring career.

Second, Gen Z is under intense pressure to attend college and to choose their major early. This pressure and many high expectations comes from society, family as well as colleges. These high school seniors look forward to graduating college and earning a good salary, living independently and being comfortable enough to buy the latest technologies and hot brands.  The fact that many Gen Zs spend weekends alone on screens, with their parents and doing homework, AND drug and alcohol use is down, proves that Gen Z prioritizes hard work over hard play.

Third, they are also financially practical, working hard to avoid being in debt like Millennials or struggling like many of their Gen X parents.  We discussed the ROI of a college degree in today’s economic environment.  According to Student Loan Debt, the average student is graduating with nearly $40K in student loan debt. Gen Z sees debt as a noose that holds them back from reaching their goals, as well as an inefficient use of funds. If they do incur debt in college, they want a salary that will let them pay it back quickly. Gen Z is fully aware of the financial implications of attending college that can cost up to $70,000 per year, and their practical nature guides them into making practical choices.

What does Generation Z demand from a college?
Generation Z is seeking a completely different set of demands, more practical and very specific demands, on their college of choice.  These seniors told me what they are looking for in a college, similar demands expressed by fellow prospective students:

  • Higher interest in public universities where tuition is at least $20k less than private
  • Demand colleges with the strongest alumni connections for future employment
  • Applying to colleges with the highest rates of job placement upon graduation
  • Interested in schools with the highest quality and closest proximity to internships
  • Applying to colleges that offer the strongest programs oriented towards their career of choice: the best outcomes. Those in public health want Tulane, those in business want UMD.

I compared the career goals of this group to a study of majors with the highest employment rates and sure enough, these Gen Z’s have selected professions that provide the most security and stability. Competition for business and engineering schools is fierce.

Do you think colleges will meet your demands?
According to this focus group, most colleges are meeting the evolving demands of Generation Z by delivering tracks and programs that Gen Z needs to reach the right outcomes. While touring colleges, these seniors were “blown away” by the practical internship experience current college students attained at Fortune 50’s.  For example, business seniors at Fordham, Villanova and UMD, have already held up to five internships and have had job offers by spring of junior year. Info session stats were not about frats, but about job placement and salary upon graduation.  Every tour guide at the 20+ schools we visited were double or triple majoring, making themselves more marketable by demonstrating interest and expertise in their chosen career path.

No wonder Generation Z is eager to declare a major and identify a career so early in their professional development.  But is it too early?  When asked what they’d do if they didn’t like their major after a year at college, 70% said they’d stick with it and 30% said they’d change majors to be content with their career; larger universities offer more majors which is another reason determined Gen Zs want to attend a bigger school.

All this “Early Decision Everything” means Generation Z will be seeking advice, experience and education about different careers so they make the right career choice before “it’s too late” when they get to college.  More corporations need to offer high school internships – like Abbott Laboratories; high schools need to staff career counselors; and those of us in the workforce should make informational sessions and mentoring HS students a higher priority.  Let’s help Generation Z become the successful professionals they want to be:  they have the brains, ambition and leadership potential to lead us through any global event, unexpected or not.

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