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Why Gen Z cares less about getting a 4-year college degree

May 31, 2022

The following article is from Fast Company.

Pandemic-led change has propelled companies through decades of evolution in two short years. But, the waves of change are just beginning. Gen Z is entering the workforce in droves and will revolutionize the ways we learn, work, and interact. I’ve worked with tech leaders to better understand how Gen Z is impacting the employee mindset and how they must evolve to remain competitive.

Gen Z is the first generation to be born after the iPhone, and their whole lives they’ve had access to technology and more information than any generation before them. This has changed their outlook on the value and price of education. With resources like Kahn Academy and Ivy League online courses with video content from the best and brightest, high quality education is at their fingertips for free or at a fraction of the cost. They can learn whatever they want, wherever they want, and at their own pace.

In contrast, they’ve watched Millennials before them take on crushing student loan debt, burdening them well into adulthood and limiting their ability to buy a first home and have children. Gen Z watched their parents and older Millennial acquaintances follow this path, but rather than it leading to prosperity, as promised, for many it meant delays in being able to afford a home, build a family, or save for retirement.

As a result, many Gen Zs are bucking the idea of a traditional education path. As of January 2022, only 51% of Gen Z teens are interested in pursuing a four-year degree, down from 71 percent in May 2020, according to a recent study by ECMC Group. And over two years, there was a 6.6% decline in total undergraduate enrollment between fall 2019 and fall 2021.

It’s not that they’re ideologically against four-year degrees. Rather, much of Gen Z understands our flawed system with staggeringly high prices for higher education and is looking for ways to earn an income and advance their careers without burdensome debt.

Gen Z seems to have more in common with their grandparents who were more focused on technical skills that allowed them stable careers in trades, and less in common with their parents’ generation, who had low-cost access to four-year degrees and general education programs. A recent study showed that 56% of Gen Z teens believe a skills-based education (e.g., trade skills, nursing, STEM, etc.) makes sense in today’s world. So, rather than waiting for a four-year degree to start earning an income, they can train in a 2-12 month program, start a paying job, and work for a company offering tuition reimbursement for four-year degrees and opportunities for promotion. Gen Z is hacking the system by circumventing the traditional college experience to learn and grow on the job.

And, once they’re in the job, Gen Zs want to keep learning to advance their careers and make more money. One of the main drivers of this constant learning mindset is a recognition that their job and technology is constantly changing. In fact, nearly 60% of Gen Zs say they don’t think their job will exist in the same form in 20 years. This understanding of the rapid change of technology, and their need to stay up-to-date with their skills, is inherent in the Gen Z mindset. They must continue to learn or their skills will become obsolete.

A few trends have emerged to support their desire for their individualized and nontraditional approach to learning. Some large tech companies have removed four-year degrees from their job requirements, opening the door for employees with self-taught tech expertise but no diploma. Another trend is for companies to offer their own training programs to recruit and educate their ideal workforce to supply technically skilled employees where they have needs. These companies are embracing Gen Z’s self-starter and constant learning mindset to train and develop the workforce they want. In this paradigm, the personal drive and entrepreneurship Gen Zs possess is a critical asset to their success. Google is among the big name companies that have launched and are seeing successes with these programs.

The focus on constant learning means to recruit, hire, and retain Gen Z employees, companies have to understand and adapt or risk losing in the talent wars. Leaders have to create agile, dynamic, and experiential learning programs that both teach and engage Gen Zs to keep up with their need for progress and quick adoption of new technology. The Instagrams and TikToks of the world have forever changed the way Gen Z expects to consume information. This means leaders must step out of their comfort zones, leaving behind email and highly-polished meetings. They have to embrace DMs, collaborative tech platforms, and videos. Gen Z demands authentic communication: real-life, human, and deeply engaging interactions. And don’t forget quick paced. If companies don’t evolve now, Gen Zs will leave them in the dust.


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