The Impact of COVID-19 on Generation Z and Its Vision of the Future of Education

July 13, 2020

To find out if Generation Z students were interested in pursuing a traditional college education at the end of high school, the Corporation for Educational Credit Management (ECMC) and VICE Media launched "Question The Quo." This survey involved more than 2,200 students in the United States between the ages of 14 and 18, young people in high school, or finishing it.

The study began in late February 2020, just as the pandemic began, and it ended in mid-May when students had been quarantined for more than a month, providing the study of quite useful insights due to the context we are living today.

Traditionally, students take at least four years of higher education to earn a degree, but now, less than 23% see it as the only path to a successful career. On the contrary, 70% of the respondents are determined to follow their own "road to success," even if it does not include going to college.

Questioning the status quo

The study shows that new generations understand the need for lifelong learning and ongoing skills training, factors that Jeremy Wheaton, President, and CEO of the ECMC Group, considers essential for success now and in the future. More than half of those surveyed (61%) stated that the best place to learn is on the job, but less than half (46%) believed that companies provide formal education opportunities to develop their skills.

According to the survey, among the factors influencing the decision to move away from traditional education by alternative routes is how to pay for higher education, given that 64% commented that they are concerned about money issues. In this regard, 59% expect the government to launch some additional programs to help them pay their student debts. Another 46% are waiting for companies to start providing formal education to improve the skills they will need in the future.

On the other hand, 80% of the best careers that those surveyed want to study are offered through professional and technical training programs, so considering an alternative is viable. Also, 65% of the respondents commented that they would do so because they trusted in their future. Still, close to 79% answered that they did not imagine the world's future, especially considering the global landscape in the face of the pandemic. Still, 84% believe that their job prospects are the same or better than their parents.

What worries Generation Z?

Climate change and student debt are two of the issues that most concern and provoke anxiety in Generation Z youth. According to the study, 51% consider climate change as the most worrisome issue, followed by student debt (48%) and high expectations from others (41%).

On the other hand, the survey asked respondents what gave them the most hope about the future, and 60% affirmed that it was their family. In second place were the goals and hopes they plan to meet (55%) and their ability to earn a living. What gives them the most distrust and discouragement is student debt, and they do not believe it can be avoided.

Generation Z has been characterized as suffering high levels of stress and burnout, due, in part, to the high expectations that the members of this generation hold for themselves. Their self-expectation is the third most worrisome issue for this generation.

However, how does Generation Z define "success"? On the survey, they were asked how much they agreed with certain statements, and 87% agreed that "success" meant getting a job that impassions them in the first five years of their working lives. Another 67% believe that success means focusing on what they love, regardless of money, and 30% believe that economic factors define success.

The pandemic has made them rethink their plans

The survey was conducted while COVID-19 was ongoing, and schools were forced to make abrupt closures of their facilities and move to online classes. Therefore, it is clear that the health crisis affected the results. For starters, 37% were concerned about how the pandemic might affect their future and, especially, about the economic impact that the epidemic will have. It is estimated that the ravages of COVID-19 will be felt even a decade from now, primarily affecting the generations that will enter the labor market in the post-pandemic world.

These factors have influenced the career decisions of Generation Z. The study found that 25% of the respondents are considering changing their plans about what to do after graduation, 24% will delay their plans to pursue a college degree, and 21% state that they are likely to attend a technical school rather than attend college. Moreover, 35% replied that it is probable that they will pursue a post-graduate degree. For those who continue with their plans to continue their studies, 74% of those surveyed believe that an education based on STEM or marketable skills makes sense and is relevant today. At the same time, 59% consider lifelong learning and continuous training as an essential topic.

Online classes vs. face-to-face

Generation Z prefers face-to-face teaching. More than half (58%) of the respondents believe that education is suffering from educational institutions' closures. While choosing between face-to-face, hybrid, or all-online classes, 36% believe that, as the panorama looks today, the lessons are much better in person, closely followed by the belief (34%) that hybrid classes are the best choice, and 30% feel more inclined toward online learning.

These results changed when the students were asked the same question that hypothesizes a scenario where there is a vaccine developed. In this scenario, 56% prefer to have face-to-face classes, followed by 37% in favor of hybrids, and only 7% desire classes that are exclusively online.

Although most of the respondents lean toward face-to-face lessons, how do they imagine a return to the post-pandemic classroom? 39% agree that if they return to classes, desks should be separated from each other, and 36% believe that social spaces should be reduced.

When asked how much they agreed about online education's difficulty and disadvantages, 39% agreed that online content is less challenging. In comparison, 34% felt the opposite that online classes are more complicated. Only 20% affirmed that the degree of difficulty is the same.

Finally, 43% believe that due to the pandemic, the insistency that there must be home education will increase the possibility that this generation will be disadvantaged. Half of the respondents (50%) believe that the quarantine has only increased inequality, given that not all students have the same access to the technologies needed to learn from a distance.

The new generations of students face a changing world that is throwing before them unprecedented challenges to their education and post-graduate work opportunities. Clearly, the pandemic has affected Generation Z and led them to rethink their plans for what to do when they graduate from high school. Furthermore, issues such as the cost of university and uncertainty continue to push students to consider entering work or studying a technical career or entering a professional training program. Still, the survey was conducted during quarantine, so it would be interesting to see if they change their minds once the universities reopen.

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