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Research Report

5 forces shaping Generation Z present opportunities and major challenges for student affairs

February 11, 2020

As Gen Z goes to college, these fiscally pragmatic, skeptical, and optimistic students are forcing institutions to re-think recruitment, graduation, and everything in between. Born between the mid-1990s and 2010s, campuses have already seen the “cuspers” of Generation Zthose likeliest to share characteristics with their Millennial predecessors and provide a preview of the generational mindset to come.

About Gen Z

Born: mid-1990s to early-2010s

Size of population: Slightly smaller than Millennials; Approximately 67 million in the US (20% of population); Approximately 6.8 million in Canada (18% of population)

Core traits: Fiscally pragmatic; skeptical of authority/institutions; optimistic about their abilities; socially progressive; safety-obsessed

Generation-defining events: The Great Recession; Introduction of the smart phone; Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality; Black Lives Matter; #MeToo; mass shootings

As the core of the Gen Z cohort begins to arrive, colleges and universities are taking stock of the needs of this generation and how to support their success. In our conversations with chief student affairs officers, four trends emerged.

How to adapt to support Gen Z student success

Gen Z is optimistic and eager to learn, but campuses will need student affairs leaders’ expertise in student development to effectively recruit, support, and graduate this new generation. Through this research, we set out to identify what was shaping Gen Z to give leaders insight into how they may need to adapt to serve this generation of students. There are many things that shape students’ mindsets and expectations, but five forces rose to the top in our research because they present both opportunities to harness their influence and significant challenges for student affairs divisions.

Throughout our 2019-2020 national meeting series, we shared these five forces with more than 130 student affairs leaders to get their insights on how these forces have and will continue to influence their work as Gen Z dominates campuses for the decade. Click through each force below to read more about how it shapes Gen Z’s mindset and how leaders are feeling the effects on campus.

Often called “children of the Great Recession,” nearly half of Gen Z considers total cost of attendance very important to their college choice, compared to less than a third of their millennial predecessors. Explore how Gen Z’s cost-conscious mindset impacts student affairs from orientation to career services and how other divisions are feeling the effects.
Gen Z students are the first true digital natives, raised on a widely accessible and participatory internet. Learn more about how this force has shaped students’ expectations and the challenges for student affairs and across campus.
Declining trust in institutions and access to information enabled by the digital age has empowered Gen Z to demand radical transparency and authenticity from leaders and organizations of all kinds. Review what impacts this force is having on students’ expectations and how that’s shifting how leaders spend their time.
Shifting demographics combine with Gen Z’s elevated comfort level and fluency in diversity to create a generation who expects institutions to seamlessly support their intersectional identities. Read about the top impacts of this force on the campus experience.
Decreased stigma, intensifying needs, elevated distress, and more all fuel Gen Z’s continued demand for mental health services and comprehensive well-being support. Discover what impacts this is having on student affairs beyond the counseling center.

Impact of Gen Z’s mindset on campus

More resources on Gen Z students