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Is it surprising that Gen Z is giving up on higher education?

Surveys conducted last year reveal that only half of Gen Z say they are interested in pursuing a four-year degree after finishing high school. Looking at the big picture, is this truly surprising?

Imagine you’ve just graduated from university, one of the biggest accomplishments of your life so far.

Now drowning in financial debt, you’ve never been more motivated to get a job. Yet, every prospective job interviewer only wants to hear about your previous work experience.

Without it, they say, you’ll have to settle for an entry-level position offering a meagre salary or – even worse – an unpaid internship.

Perhaps this has been your reality before. It would be unsurprising, as it’s an experience shared by millions of young people for years.

Now, many members of Gen Z are choosing to sidestep the costly and time-consuming venture of higher education for fear that the return on their investment is not high enough.

Can they ever be lured back?

25+ New Generation Z Statistics (2023)

Looking at the trends

During the pandemic, less than half of Gen Z said they planned to attend higher education.

This is likely due to the fact that much of the college experience – meeting friends, moving in together, and attending classes and seminars in person – was obliterated by lockdown rules.

Fast forward to today, and around 60 percent of Gen Z are currently in college or university. This may sound like a high figure at first, but it’s four million fewer teenagers enrolled at a college than a decade before.

Numerous surveys involving young people have found that an aversion to pursuing higher education is motivated by far more than the uncertainty of the world around us.

Over half of Gen Z admit not trusting that college or university will adequately train them for the careers that most interest them, which are jobs in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), business, and health-related sectors.

For this reason, 56 percent of young people are placing a higher focus on developing technical skills that will carry them throughout every stage of their careers. Many are doing this by instead enrolling in 2–12-month training programs and apprenticeships.

These ventures are more likely to lead to a job immediately after. If they don’t, at least young people will feel secure that have learned skills and practical knowledge regarding their field of interest – ultimately bolstering their chances of finding employment elsewhere.

But what about members of Gen Z who went to university?

Gen Z Education Statistics And Trends in 2023 • GITNUX

What is the return on investment (ROI)?

It’s true that a significant portion of Gen Z will complete a degree in higher education – just not as many as generations before.

The college dropout rate for this generation is 18 percent higher when compared to Millennials. Of those who dropped out, nearly half said it was because they ‘failed to see an adequate return on the time and investment required for college study.’

Many enrolled in university felt that their courses needed to be updated to better reflect the future. For digital natives like Gen Z, most of their learning has been done independently, in online spaces.

With all they need to know at their fingertips (YouTube is an excellent resource for self-teaching), traditional methods in universities seem outdated. Those working within universities should ask what their expensive courses can offer that online learning can’t.

What Gen Z students ask for instead is personalised learning experiences, access to new and emerging technology, and practical workshops that help them develop the know-how for jobs they will seek in the future.

Without this, young people are starting to question whether the financial and time-eating investment in higher education will ultimately lead to a higher income or better job prospects.

Gen Z Education Statistics And Trends in 2023 • GITNUX


What can lure young people back?

As mentioned, one of the biggest deterrents to higher education is the cost of time and money vs. the eventual reward.

In the US, student debt forgiveness as proposed by President Joe Biden may help those currently struggling but will do little to impact the future. In fact, it would only take 5 years for national student debt levels to rise back up to $1.6 billion.

Student debt that only worsens over time is certainly one of the biggest deterrents for young people. Fixing this, it seems, will be a crucial way to attract future generations to enrolling in university and college.

Finally, as the world changes, so should approaches to learning. Courses with more practical learning opportunities, technical resources, and cheaper tuition fees may be the only way to make higher education seem more attractive.