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Exploring Gen Z alternatives to university and what they mean for brands

by Christina Germano
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    Gen Z was forging its own path even before the pandemic hit. Now, the global crisis presents a new and unexpected fork in the road: whether or not to attend traditional universities. Let’s explore some of Gen Z’s alternatives to university and the implications they pose for brands.

    Gen Z was  on the fence about university even before COVID-19: 75 percent of them believe that a traditional university degree isn’t necessary for getting a quality education—and for some, COVID-19 has totally tipped the scales. 

    Although the majority of Gen Zs have chosen to go to university in recent years, the global pandemic has derailed plans for countless students matriculating in 2020 and beyond. A recent Cirkled In report shows that American students' perspectives on higher education are changing with the times:

      • 22% are rethinking their university plans
      • 69% expect their education financial situation to be impacted
      • 26% are reconsidering their ideal university location

    For many Gen Z students, this means they're exploring schools closer to home, considering community and state universities, or even delaying enrollment all together. 

    In the United Kingdom, the post-university employment outlook for Gen Z is bleak, with the unemployment rate for 18-24 year olds spiking to 27 percent because of the pandemic—almost triple the rate from the previous year. It’s also estimated that recent graduates are now 37 percent less likely to be employed in three years, which isn’t great news for prospective students in the U.K. 

    So what does this mean? For starters, this already frugal generation is becoming even more risk-averse as unemployment skyrockets, impacting their decisions about higher education and the path forward. 

    If their frugality surprises you, it shouldn’t. So far, COVID-19 is the most significant economic event of Gen Z’s lives, but they’ve arguably been preparing for it their entire lives. Our Gen Z and Money report talks about how the Great Recession of 2008 influenced this young generation, as they observed their parents struggling during the aftermath, instilling an innate sense of fiscal caution that has only since been affirmed by recent events.  

    Gen Z brands should recognize the challenges that older teens and young adults are facing as they make major life decisions in an ever-changing world. Whether marketing to university students or those who have chosen a different path, Gen Z continues to stand by their values. They respect authenticity, rely heavily on social media, and expect their favorite brands to have a strong social conscience.  

    Brands, take a lesson from these universities 

    University is still very much a viable and exciting option for Gen Zs, but schools will have to take steps to keep them engaged remotely and alleviate student concerns about health and the quality of education they're receiving. Surprisingly, although they're digital natives, many Gen Zs actually prefer in-person learning to the remote experience. 

    One researcher has found that 80 percent of students preferred in-person learning to Zoom classes, and another learned that students were anxious about how well they would perform in an online learning environment.

    Instructors are responding with innovative ways to alleviate this anxiety. Some examples of creative remote learning solutions include:

      • Offering virtual healthcare simulations and telehealth roleplays for nursing students
      • Performing Shakespeare plays via Zoom
      • Adapting an economics course to include real-time calculations about the impact of COVID-19 

    These are just a few of the many ways universities are continuing to engage the students who are already enrolled, but what about attracting new students? Here’s what some schools have tried:

      • Converting in-person celebrations to virtual moments with social sharing 
      • Increasing their investment in swag for celebration boxes and incentives to participate in virtual events
      • Hosting virtual events to generate feedback and follow up with conversations that are specifically targeted to student concerns
      • Generating online content to engage prospective students and recent enrollees

    Additionally, universities in Australia, Europe, and the U.S. are responding to requests for lower tuition rates in light of the increase in remote learning,

    The bottom line is, universities are adapting to current events and recognizing the need to change the ways they engage with students.. Gen Z brands must do the same, and can start by taking lessons from universities.

    Gen Z’s alternatives to university include:

    COVID-19 has forced Gen Z to make tough decisions about their immediate futures, and not all of them will remain on the course they had originally chartered. Here’s are some of Gen Z’s alternatives to university:

    Staying in university, but doing it cheaper 

    Some students, especially those just entering university or in their first year, are considering transferring to more affordable schools. This is an opportunity for community and state universities to attract Gen Zs who were initially more drawn to private universities.

    Building skill sets through entry-level jobs 

    In lieu of university, Gen Z can take advantage of the 1.5 million entry-level jobs that will help them build skills for a long-term career in healthcare, transportation, or customer service. 

    Taking a gap year 

    Some older teens are living at home with parents to save money or choosing to travel once that option opens up again. Gen Z brands that cater both to students who have moved back home and to young travelers looking to take a gap year.

    Online certifications 

    As remote learning becomes a more normalized form of education, Gen Z is exploring other ways they develop skills that can be quickly applied in the real world. Real estate licenses, personal trainer certifications, and other types of programs are gaining popularity.

    Doing good for the community  

    With extra time on their hands and an already strong commitment to making social contributions, Gen Z is demonstrating leadership through initiatives like the Makin’ Lemonade Fund. Gen Z brands that participate in these types of programs through sponsorship, donations, and social promotion have the opportunity to resonate with younger consumers. 

    What this means for Gen Z brands

    In light of COVID-19, Gen Z has a renewed focus on frugality and a commitment to doing good. Gen Z brands that approach this moment authentically and with these values in mind have an opportunity to build trust and gain a loyal following with this key generation of consumers. 

    Brands should also take notes on how universities have adapted to the current climate. Nothing is the same as ‘before’, so don’t use the same messaging and tactics you used before. Instead, adapt.

    To learn more about how to reach this important generation, check out our Gen Z Marketing Playbook

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