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Research Report

How cost-consciousness informs Gen Z’s higher ed expectations

March 4, 2020


of Gen Z students consider cost of attendance very important to their college choice
of Gen Z students consider cost of attendance very important to their college choice

Generation Z has been called the “Children of the Great Recession” because they came of age or were born into the results of a global economic crisis. Many of these students saw their family or friends lose their jobs, their homes, and/or their retirement funds. This aspect of Gen Z culture is a direct result of the environment in their households and the state of the world during and after the recession.

The cost-conscious Gen Z culture has been further heightened by the national conversation about the student debt crisis and the rising cost of college. Data from the 2018 edition of The American Freshman survey shows that on average, 64% of Gen Z have serious concerns about financing their education and 51% expect to get a job while enrolled to cover expenses. Looking at data over time, 48% of today’s Gen Z students consider cost of attendance very important to their college choice, 17 percentage points higher than Millennials in 2004.

While the idea of students as consumers is a controversial perspective in higher education, for Gen Z, college is as much about optimizing their future financial security as it is about the pursuit of learning and personal development.

Impacts of cost-consciousness

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

  • Students negotiate to opt-out of non-tuition fees that contribute directly to student affairs budgets. In some cases, governments have tried mandating that students have the right to opt-out of select non-tuition fees.
  • Students are still shopping for the right deal and fit at orientation, having submitted deposits to (and even attending orientation at) multiple institutions.
  • Interest in high-cost, amenity-rich luxury residence halls declines as students seek more basic, affordable housing options.
  • Students worried about degree ROI and/or debt repayment overwhelm career services seeking robust support—but often too late to fully take advantage of those resources.
  • Co-curricular involvement declines as more students work while enrolled or fail to realize the value of those opportunities to develop critical skills that employers seek .
  • More students struggle to support their basic needs, resulting in more colleges and universities providing food pantries, clothes closets, and emergency housing services.

Top challenges for student affairs

While requests for non-tuition fee waivers and refunds have increased, the more pressing demand from cost-conscious Gen Z students is fee transparency. This generation wants to know where their money goes, translating in some cases to activism or campus flashpoints over affordability issues. Some leaders observe that Gen Z students will pay more for essentials they value, such as mental health support, but aren’t interested in paying for residence halls with luxe amenities built to appeal to their Millennial predecessors. And while some institutions are moving to comprehensive fee models in response to this force, campuses who have long used this model caution that it is also subject to scrutiny and the same demands for transparency.

This focus on fees and affordability has led some chief student affairs officers to analyze what fees are charged, what they fund, and how that information is communicated. This can result in clearer communications or redistributed itemizations that address students’ concerns about obscure or excessive fees. For example, one leader shared how a recent fee audit revealed outdated language explaining that students paid a technology fee for laptops the institution issued them upon enrollment—a practice that was discontinued years ago. Now, updated language reflects the IT infrastructure the fee actually funds, practically eliminating waiver requests.

Beyond student affairs: The impact of cost-consciousness across campus

Cost-conscious Gen Z students are upending the status quo on everything from post-deposit yield calculations to textbook requirements. We asked EAB experts to share how this force impacts the whole institution. Here are some of their top insights.


As public regard for higher education declines and government funding dwindles, presidents must spend more time advocating for and defending the value of a college degree.

Enrollment management

In a more competitive landscape, institutions extend more early decision special offers to lock in net tuition revenue. They must re-think post-deposit engagement strategies to prevent post-orientation melt.

icon of books

Academic affairs

Programs offer more flexible schedules, hybrid learning formats, and open source materials to appeal to cost-conscious students who are working more hours during college.

Business affairs

Campuses are pressed to find alternatives to tuition discounting to maintain financial sustainability while appealing to cost-conscious students, like income sharing agreements or corporate tuition partnerships.

Professional and adult learning

Institutions are offering lifetime subscriptions for learning opportunities that continually provide value and engagement to alumni.

Impact of Gen Z’s mindset on campus

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