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Research Report

How the online ecosystem shapes Gen Z digital natives


of high school students in 2019 use Facebook, a drop of 17-percentage points compared to high schoolers in 2017

Generation Z students are the first true digital natives. These students grew up in the age of the smart personal device and accessible internet connectivity. Participation in the digital ecosystem has almost always been expected—if not required.

Gen Z has never had a question they couldn’t Google. They are accustomed to algorithms filtering their online world based on their interests. They expect tracking through digital cookies that autocomplete forms or targets them with ads for a jacket they browsed recently. Media has always been social and communication instantaneous, with teens sending more than 3,000 text messages monthly.

Gen Z’s eight-second window to be captivated by new content reflects the break-neck pace of the digital world. Colleges and universities who fail to adapt to the impacts of this force will struggle to serve Gen Z students.

As with any innovation, the digital ecosystem has benefits and risks: for example, the internet fosters community-building, innovation, and creativity, but can also spread misinformation or encourage toxic behavior.

Impacts of the digital ecosystem

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

  • Students disengage from large volumes of information and need more directive and personalized ways to navigate campus resources.
  • Students increasingly expect 24/7 service and one-stop-shop information hubs, both online and in person.
  • Students and their families expect that most administrative transactions are completed online.
  • Students expect that if they tell one campus staff person about their concern or situation, the next administrator they talk to will have that same information.
  • There is a growing need for students to partake in online conduct and media literacy training.
  • Online polarization is intensifying conduct issues, magnifying the visibility and range of flashpoints.

Top challenges for student affairs

Today’s digital ecosystem has made personalization and on-demand service the norm. Student affairs leaders are challenged to adapt to these expectations with limited resources while balancing the needs of a workforce already subject to intense burn out. Investing in tech-based solutions takes time and money, and leaders hesitate to invest in something that may be quickly outdated or not resonate with digital natives. Some leaders are taking incremental steps in making their offerings more easily accessible and navigable through digital and in-person one-stop-shops. Others are making strategic investments in on-demand and tech-enhanced services, like 24/7 counseling center text messaging, phone hotlines, or AI chat bots that help student navigate resources.

Campus climate issues are made more complex in a hyper-connected digital age. Campus flashpoints are on the rise, requiring more attention from student affairs leaders to coordinate institutional response, stop the spread of misinformation, and mitigate damage to the campus community. Leaders struggle to make progress on mid- and long-term priorities as they jump from one crisis to the next.

Beyond student affairs: The impact of the digital ecosystem across campus

The digital ecosystem brings a wave of disruption to every corner of campus. We asked EAB experts to share how this force impacts the whole institution. Here are some of their top insights:

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Academic affairs

Instructors deliver more rapid and frequent feedback on academic progress to engage students accustomed to the instantaneous feedback of texting and social media.

Enrollment management

Colleges and universities harness data analytics to personalize student recruitment tactics and messages.

Information technology

Good data governance is critical as institutions balance privacy requirements with students’ expectations for online and personalized services.

Impact of Gen Z’s mindset on campus