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How to effectively reach Gen Z in 2022

June 1, 2021, By Madeleine Rhyneer, Vice President of Consulting Services and Dean of Enrollment Management

We know that the methods digital native high school students use to search for colleges-and what they find most helpful-are constantly evolving. So, as we have done since 2015, our Enrollment research team, led by Pam Royall, surveyed more than 15,000 high school students on their communications preferences. Survey questions ranged from how students search for information and which information sources are most helpful, to their expectations of college websites and how they use social media.

Read on to learn more about our key findings and what they mean for your college or university.

Participant Profile

We surveyed 15,291 high school students between late February and mid-March of 2021. 91% of respondents plan to go to college after high school, and 21% will be first-generation students (a proportion in line with other EAB studies). 40% of respondents are high school seniors, 40% are high school juniors, and 20% are high school sophomores. 62% are female, 35% are male, and 3% identify otherwise. Household income is evenly distributed between low, medium, and high, and students are evenly distributed across the four main regions of the country.

Colleges need to bring their digital A-game

Gen Z expects well-designed, user-friendly, and polished websites with easily accessible information. And a school’s website has the potential to make or break a student’s interest in that institution. 62% of students indicated that they would abandon a college website that is not user-friendly, while 87% of students said a well-designed website improves their opinion of a college.


Here are some steps institutions can take to ensure maximum online visibility and engage prospects effectively:

  • Place academic majors and programs front and center
  • Maximize SEO efforts, including voice search
  • Ensure content that addresses top student and family questions, particularly information on financial aid and student outcomes, is clear and easy to locate
  • Organize content based on how students and parents will search rather than internal taxonomy
  • Optimize website for use on all device types, focusing on digital first
  • Include a virtual tour for students to experience campus from anywhere

Don’t let your website hurt your student recruitment efforts

Having an online presence is important, but what are students really searching for? Our survey found that 82% of students search for colleges by academic programs, so it’s important that your college or university appears in search results when students browse by major. And if you offer programs with names students are unlikely to search for, consider meta-tagging those homepages with program titles that will be more familiar to students.

It’s also worth optimizing your website for voice search, as two-thirds of students responded that they use voice search most often from mobile devices.


When using a search engine to look for information about colleges or universities, what type of searches are you most likely to perform? (Select all that apply)

Unsurprisingly, our survey also found that social media usage is ubiquitous among Gen Z. What’s interesting is understanding which digital platforms students frequent in their personal lives versus where they interact with colleges. Surveyed students report using YouTube and Instagram most frequently in their personal lives, and they also use those channels most frequently when connecting with colleges. However, consider the disparity between students’ personal use of Snapchat versus their use of Snapchat in college search.

So, not all social media platforms are created equal when it comes to college search. But the fact that 37% of students discovered a college or university on social media-and 91% of students think every college should have a social media presence-means that social media offers real opportunity.


Select all of the social media platforms you currently use

Have you interacted with a college or university on any of the following social media platforms?

While our survey findings showed that strong websites and social media presence are top priorities for engaging students, email remains a strong contender. Email was shown to be the most important source for female, first-generation, lower-income, Black, and Latinx students who are gathering information about colleges.

Parents matter during the college search process

While we’ve long known the important role that parents play during the college search process, their role has become even more significant in the last few years. In 2019, parents were ranked as the third most important source of information for students. In just two years, parents moved up the rankings, with 55% of students selecting parents/guardians as their top source when searching for information about colleges. This may reflect the additional family time some students experienced during COVID-19. Regardless, enrollment leaders need to create and deliver messages directly to parents that address their interests and concerns. To achieve success, make parents your allies and honor their influence in the college search process.

Consider the sources of information you have used and indicate which sources are most helpful


Many parents and guardians play a critical role in their children’s college search. We’ve learned that parents expect engagement from colleges on a full spectrum of channels, from school websites and search engines to personal letters and other forms of direct contact. Check out the webinar on our 2020 parent survey to learn more about how to best engage parents.

Personalized content matters

If there’s one thing we know about Gen Z, it’s that they crave personalized and relevant communications, and they are willing to share information in order to receive messages that directly address their interests. When a college website asks a student to complete an inquiry form, 91% of students indicated they provided all or some of the information requested.

Students who are willing to provide their personal information expect that they will get a customized experience in return: the majority of sophomores and juniors expressed interest in content that identifies them by name or area of interest. Sophomores offer a rich recruiting opportunity because enrollment leaders have a longer runway to build interest and affinity. Providing them with personalized content is a great way to jump-start your recruitment process.


Begin your personalized marketing to students early on in high school. 60% of college research is done before or during a student’s sophomore year, and students are two times more likely to enroll if contacted during their sophomore year.

For underserved students, financial aid remains a mystery to be unlocked

In addition to looking at communication preferences, our survey asked students about the challenges they’ve faced with filing their FAFSA. As we know, many first-generation and low-income students don’t file the FAFSA because they don’t understand how financial aid could work for them or don’t think they will qualify-more than 30% of first-generationĀ and students from low-income households said completing the FASFA was difficult. The gaps in FAFSA filings have only been exacerbated by the pandemic. Many students-especially female, first-generation, lower-income, Black, and LatinX students-don’t have the same access to their support networks of college counselors, coaches, teachers, and employers.


To better help and support students, colleges can:

  • Continue to reiterate that questions about the FAFSA are welcome
  • Empathize with the challenges students and families face when filing the FAFSA
  • Demystify financial aid by speaking about the FAFSA in lay person’s terms
  • Capitalize on technology to share information and help students overcome financial barriers

To learn more about our survey findings, you can watch the webinar that I hosted alongside my colleague Pam Royall. We dig deeper into the seemingly endless digital channels of the world and how to best engage Gen Z on their terms.

Madeleine Rhyneer

Vice President of Consulting Services and Dean of Enrollment Management

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