6 Reasons Gen Z Won’t Go To College: How to Update Higher Ed Marketing

By Kaley Shorter on August 10, 2016
Higher Education Web Design Enrollment Marketing

Short on time? Skip to the end of this post for the sharable infographic.

When my daughter cried as a baby or exasperated me as a toddler, I’d boost her (and mostly my own) spirits by cheerfully putting things into perspective: “You’ll be fine, you’ll still go to college!”

Fast forward nine years, and today I’m not a hundred percent sure anymore. Generation Z (those born from the mid-90s to now) is becoming a more fickle crowd for higher education marketers to convert. Generation Z’s attitude about college is somewhat reflected in college enrollment numbers that are in peril across the country.

How well do you know your prospective students? Don’t market to just anyone. Use Parisleaf’s successful, step by step method for developing your institution’s specific student personas.

Here are six reasons why Generation Z may be inclined to skip college (at least for now) unless higher education institutions find ways to overcome these objections by updating their branding, digital design and marketing strategies:


1. Generation Z doesn’t see the ROI in a college education.

College debt is so not cool anymore.


Tweet by @CollegeStudent

Your new audience is a group of uber-conservative investors who are as hard to pry from their money as my grandparents were in the Depression. Millennials, Generation X, and the Great Recession have irrevocably shaped the money attitudes of Generation Z. Although employers continue to sing the song that they won’t hire without experience AND a degree, many in Gen Z are more interested in entrepreneurship, or in getting practical, on-the-job experience before or instead of attending college. After watching Millennials and their Gen Z parents struggle through years of debt, they’re extremely wary of being saddled with student loan debt for years into their career and family life.

DO THIS:  Use storytelling and leverage your brand to prove that your degrees truly matter in the particular job landscape in which they’re picturing themselves (more on that below). Otherwise, Gen Z may pass on your academic offerings. Before you show prospective students “what,” “where” or “how much,” show them why. Also, consider instituting a work program like these successful colleges have done.


2. Gen Z’s Gen X parents didn’t save enough (or any) college funds

…because they themselves were saddled with college loan debt, and because their “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” Baby Boomer parents did little to teach them the dangers of credit cards, the reality of different career incomes against inflation, and the importance of saving from a young age. The average American in their 40s has only $63,000 saved for retirement. Only 48% have anything saved for their children’s college education, with $10,040 being the average savings.

DO THIS: Be generous in your financial offerings. Find new ways to ask your alumni, benefactors and any other supportive parties for scholarship funds and endowments. And be sure your enrollment marketing puts these scholarship and research opportunities brightly in front of prospective students.


3. Generation Z want to be entrepreneurs and get real-world experience first.

Don’t laugh – this is for real. Several reasons:

Boom – an inventor, non-profit founder or business owner is born, quite willing to learn from the DIY gurus and their own mistakes.

DO THIS: It’s not too late to attract even the 19-year-old world-renowned inventors and activists to your enrollment roster. Show, using student and recent alumni storytelling, that your school will get them where they want to go faster than relying only on the school of hard knocks. Congratulate them on their individual thinking and remind them they’ll need advanced training in things like engineering, capital-raising, the arts, social sciences, communications and marketing to really run with their ideas.


4. More young people have special needs to which many colleges don’t cater, like food allergies or learning challenges.

Has your institution planned for the growing number of young people with disabling sensitivity to gluten, nuts, lactose or other foods? Never mind the scientific reasons this is true. In a real world example, range of healthy dietary options is one of the first criteria my daughter will weigh when looking at colleges, because she has a medically restricted diet and doesn’t want to starve to death on a campus that mainly serves “traditional fare.” Likewise, learning challenges from dyslexia to Autism spectrum are still posing challenges for students in the higher education environment. Many of the best and brightest learn differently – don’t unintentionally exclude them.

DO THIS: Be proactive about providing a safe and motivating environment for all students, and be aggressive about advertising that you do. Ability challenges, allergies and learning differences are real struggles that affect daily life but, when overcome, allow a student to truly shine and contribute to the community. And let me personally tell you, the gratitude and joy these students feel at finding encouragement and a “safe haven” is extremely powerful.


5. Generation Z are not inspired by many colleges’ academic offerings.

Got biology and business programs? Of course. But do you have Coastal Environmental Science? How about Environmental Tourism and Hospitality? Adventure Therapy? Family Finance Counseling? Great! Now do I have to dig around your website to find it? What if I don’t even know that’s a thing, but would REALLY feel called to that if it’s explained to me? Do you have a “design-your-own-major” option? More Gen Z’s are seeking the self-designed major option than has any previous generation.

DO THIS: On your website, your academics links should have solid, long-tail search optimization strategy behind them. You can also employ video and infographics detailing student stories and recent alumni career successes. This content should not just live placidly on your website- it should be the social media workhorse of your marketing arsenal. The sole purpose behind that content should be to show (not just tell) how these degrees do matter, how pursuing them at YOUR institution is key, and most importantly, how the people earning them are making specific and measurable differences in fields Generation Z is interested in now.


6. They aren’t finding YOU.

You’re doing so many things right, but like many small colleges, you’re eclipsed by regional big name schools. You feel like they’ve swallowed up all the brand oxygen for your territory.

DO THIS: Don’t worry about the students enrolling there. Fight your own fight and proactively target the right students for your institution. Do you truly know who they are? Find out in a detailed discovery session with a higher education branding agency like Parisleaf. That will produce unique personas for your various target students. Then it’s easier to create engaging content presented like no other college, implement smart search engine optimization of your site, and launch an edgy social media strategy.

Key content that makes your college stand out is video. If you can influence one thing this year about your higher institution website, let it be VIDEO. Video boosts your searchability and attracts relevant traffic. Video engages, keeping students on your site, building their interest. When done right, video does your storytelling better than any of the words on that page. College video marketing is the future of struggling higher education institutions but is sadly underused.



With enrollment teetering on the brink of safe and scary, don’t assume Generation Z will come to you. Work for their attention so that when they do, they feel at home in your digital domains and when personally meeting your institution’s brand ambassadors.

Then they know they’ll feel at home – and on purpose –  on your campus.


Here’s a quick summary:

How well do you know your prospective students?

Don’t market to just anyone.

Focus your marketing – save time and money. Our successful method for discovering your college’s unique audience is spelled out step by step in our free eBook, How to Build Student Personas.

About Kaley Shorter

A creative in her own right, Kaley has tapped years of journalism, CRM management, inbound marketing and customer experience shaping to launch Parisleaf’s blog to international recognition in less than four months. Kaley still makes it home in time for dinner with the family, disc golf and rocking out on stage at the piano.

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