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Research Report

How Gen Z’s demand for radical transparency and authenticity impacts higher ed leaders

Generation Z is skeptical of authority, a legacy of their Gen X parents that mirrors a global trend of declining trust in institutions. Unlike older generations, Gen Z values are shaped by the digital ecosystem they grew up within, built on sharing and access. The digital age has enabled unprecedented transparency into institutions, facilitated access to information and decision-makers, and provided a platform for individuals to amplify their voices.

“…students in Generation Z are empowered with information and communication tools and have access to thought leaders and power brokers. They possess a mind-set that they can change institutions.”

Corey Seemiller and Megan Grace, Generation Z Goes to College

Consumer research finds that 68% of Gen Z read at least three reviews before making a purchase with their own money, highlighting how transparency and peer opinion influences their decisions. Seventy-nine percent of Gen Z consumers say that they trust a company more if it doesn’t use Photoshop retouching, demonstrating the power of authenticity to build goodwill. Business analysts emphasize that Gen Z won’t hesitate to call out manufactured transparency and authenticity when they see it.

Impacts of the demand for radical transparency and authenticity

How does this force impact Student Affairs? EAB research revealed some common impacts across a variety of colleges and universities:

  • Students demand meaningful access to decision-makers.
  • Students expect more information and input on institutional decisions. They expect multiple modalities for providing their input and detailed explanations when things don’t go their way.
  • Students and their families escalate their issue to top leadership before the frontline staff have the chance to address their concern or because they are unhappy with the result.
  • Students increasingly call out inconsistencies in institutional values and practices.
  • Students seek out unfiltered information, like social media, to learn about the student experience.

Top challenges for student affairs

Meeting students’ expectations for transparency and access to decision-makers requires more dedicated time from top leaders across the institution. As a result, student affairs leaders find themselves persuading or coaching campus partners who aren’t used to this level of engagement.

Leaders are fielding more questions from students and families who direct their concerns to the senior-most person they can contact. This pulls the focus of senior leadership and undermines the authority of frontline and mid-level staff.

Many chief student affairs officers welcome the push from students to re-evaluate policies to be mindful of equity and ensure the institution is living up to its values. At the same time, administrators worry that students are quick to catastrophize, growing suspicious when, for example, their emails aren’t answered immediately. In many cases, leaders struggle with how much they can respond to students’ demand for transparency given the complexities and high-stakes politics surrounding higher education.

Beyond student affairs: the impact of the demand for radical transparency and authenticity across campus

Gen Z values transparency and trusts authentic leaders. We asked EAB experts to share how this force impacts the whole institution. Here are some of their top insights:

Presidents

Presidents spend more time building their authentic brand with students by being visible and accessible on campus and social media.

Enrollment management

Aid packages and total cost transparency must be delivered up-front with admission decision.

Advancement

Institutions face pressure from students, alumni, and staff to decline donations from donors whose wealth comes from controversial sources.

Impact of Gen Z’s mindset on campus