How Rising Seas and Gen Z Will Save College Enrollment

By Kaley Shorter on June 28, 2016
Higher Education Generation Z

Generation Z’s cash-crunch attitude means fewer teens today are seeing ROI in aspiring to what was once considered a universal rite of passage: attending a four-year college towards a career degree. Not surprisingly, many small to medium institutions are feeling the pinch, and some are even buckling under waves of exodus.

Fortunately, one solution is coming to light that may save us all.

You’ve seen the enrollment numbers, and they are alarming. Four-year, private nonprofit colleges grew 2.5% total over the past two years but then began a .2% downturn in 2015. Faring much worse, four-year, for-profit institutions saw a 13.9% total enrollment drop in the past two years and an additional 4.9% drop in 2015 (stats from Some of these schools are closing while others have gone belly-up.

Understandably, this has many small to mid-size colleges scrambling to revamp their images and outreaches in an effort to attract enough new students. In talking with our clients, we’re discovering that branding agencies who have long track records of working with higher education institutions may be missing the boat on today’s college-bound market.

What worked in marketing to pre-college students eight or even three years ago isn’t what’s working today.

What’s special about the incoming generation of students? Generation Z, born from 1996 to 2010, have truly had devices in their hands since birth. More notably, Gen Zs are the first to be held to Common Core math and Next Generation science, in a recent attempt to catch up our country on STEM education in line with our national competitors. Zs’ Millennial role models, their modern public and private school education emphasizing hands-on learning and diversity, and their parental upbringing by news-hardened early adopters Generation X have all given them a higher focus on the environment and humanities than any generations combined.

Which leads to something the media commonly overlooks about Generation Z. Although they are financially wary, in their own words, put by 15-year old Jenn Little on,

“While the economy scares us, people born in Generation Z would take a job where they felt like they were making a difference as opposed to one that pays more.”

Ironically, thanks in part to their penchant for on-screen connectedness, Generation Z is extremely socially conscious and environmentally aware. If my own kids and many like them are any indication, our simplification that Gen Zs are just addicted to their electronic devices are inaccurate. Trends are cyclical, and it’s high time that good old-fashioned field work and “making a difference” comes back into style.

Gen Z’s are widely indicating they are more likely to be propelled by a wish to give back, putting idle screen time aside in favor of getting their hands dirty and making true impact on the world’s challenges.

That’s important, because today we face the single greatest peril any generation has faced, and we’re all in it together. Global warming’s rising sea levels have drowned once-prosperous islands in the Chesapeake Bay.  Surface temperatures and highly destructive storms are consistently on the rise.  Sea turtles are in danger of producing only females due to higher sand temperatures, and many other animals are threatened or extinct due to global warming’s effects on their habitats and behaviors. These are only a handful of the disturbing warning signs that major changes are accelerating in our planet’s ecosystem which can no longer be ignored.

Melanie Fitzpatrick, reporting for the Union for Concerned Scientists, sums up the alarming findings in Global Warming – Human Fingerprints: “…we have a small window in which to avoid truly dangerous warming and provide future generations with a sustainable world. This will require immediate and sustained action to reduce our heat-trapping emissions through increased energy efficiency, expanding our use of renewable energy, and slowing deforestation (among other solutions).”

We all need to continue doing our part, but since global warming is a heavy and accelerating train to re-route and naysayers still abound, Generation Z will need to step in with new energy and perspective to help lead us all in this enormous challenge.

This is where your for-profit or private non-profit college enters. These kids come with purpose and a 100% realistic perspective. Having grown up in the new age of home-turf terrorism, the Great Recession, and the naked truth of impending ecological crisis, they are already globally involved and extremely socially concerned. They live less virtually in their electronics than we would think. Their very connectedness to both news and friends worldwide means that they know exactly what is going on, and they’re both passionate and educated to do something about it.

These are your new students. They want to be involved, they want to roll up their sleeves, and they know we are expecting them. They’re not only up to the task, they’re excited about it and telling their friends. They want careers in eco sciences, social sciences and the arts, because this time, no elders are telling them to get their heads out of the clouds– they’re telling them with 100% truth and hope, “You can change the world.”

If you can position your institution as one that speaks to these dreams and to the good of humanity, especially in the fields of ecology and sustainability, you’ll attract more of the best students and be able to build a rich legacy for future generations of students.

Not sure the sustainability-savvy target is for your institution? It’s worth considering at least investing differently in how you market your environmental sciences and arts departments. Dr. Stephen Mulkey, environmental scientist, sustainability expert, and President Emeritus of Unity College in Maine (known as America’s Environmental College) believes that capturing Generation Z’s attention and hearts now is a major key to solving both ecological and college enrollment woes, putting it starkly in 2016 in an interview with me:

 “Within the next zero to ten years, the kids are going to ask how they can help– and those places still giving window dressing to environmental issues, are going to be [left empty].”

The evidence is everywhere. Is your institution sticking its head in the sand or looking for new solutions? Fortunately, the future still looks bright:

“Generation Z students want to learn not just for learning’s sake, but because they can then use that learning to create social change. Give them the tools and experiences in a context that matters to them and they will likely do big things.”  –Seemiller & Grace, Generation Z Goes to College*

For the story on how strategic eco-awareness targeting saved Unity College’s enrollment and has begun to inspire the new generation of field scientists, eco-farmers and researchers, visit our Work page.

If your institution is interested in including sustainability in its curriculum, we highly suggest attending the Sustainability Across the Curriculum Leadership Workshop, conducted by The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE).


In my next post, I’ll discuss exactly how to capture the imaginations and enrollment dollars of Generation Z, so your institution can get prepared instead of getting left behind.

*Generation Z Goes to College by Corey Seemiller, Meghan Grace. John Wiley & Sons, Jan 19, 2016

Want the step by step version to discover your student personas?

Update your student marketing personas with 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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