For the last decade, millennial students have captured the attention of higher education. We’ve studied them, learned about their perspectives on the world, and sought to serve them well through our educational system. Now the stream of millennial-minded students is maturing; they are no longer our traditional-aged prospects. They are currently enrolled as undergraduates. They are our young alumni. They are becoming graduate students. They are our adult non-traditional students. That means it’s time to focus on the next generation.
What shall we call the next generation? Some call them Generation Z, iGen, or Centennials. With birth years that begin roughly around the turn of the millennium, it’s hard to know what name will stick. For our purposes, we’ll call them Re-Gen, a name used by Tammy Erickson, an expert in generational research and recent keynote speaker at Eduventures’ Enrollment Management Day (EM Day) where we explored their new viewpoint and the implications for higher education. As it turns out, Re-Gens are distinctly different from Millennials.
According to Erickson, life experiences and events that occur between the ages of 11-15 are critical in the development of mental models or frames of reference that stay with people throughout life. In a much-shortened version of her in-depth research, the Millennial generation is substantially formed by its experience with 9/11 and the increasing ubiquity of technology.
Re-Gen, on the other hand, is a generation that is substantially formed by the great recession, accelerating climate change, and completely native use of technology. At EM Day, we discussed how the mental models of Re-Gen are likely to play out in higher education; here are the top three highlights of our discussion.
1. Re-Gens do not want to be owners
Re-Gen demonstrates a strong aversion to ownership, which raises critical concerns about the cost of higher education and student debt. This generation of students is coming of age in the era of Uber and Airbnb. They don’t want to own a car or a house (or even their jar of Paprika, according to Erickson) and are likely to avoid taking on high student debt. This fact poses a tremendous challenge for higher education institutions that are already flirting with difficulty in a high price/high discount model of pricing that asks students to take on elevated levels of student debt.
Eduventures’ recent analysis of price sensitivity and academic fit among high school students engaged in college search underscored Erickson’s findings. Our data showed that half (50%) of prospective students in our national sample were solely sensitive to high sticker price in their decisions to apply to colleges and universities. The level of academic fit made no difference in their willingness to tolerate higher sticker prices.
Our take: Colleges must not only explore ways of communicating the cost and financial responsibilities of attending college to Re-Gen but also legitimately explore new models of pricing that reduce debt load for students. We should carefully watch the results of alternative tuition models like free community college or income-share tuition agreements to see which might be viable alternatives to the high price/high discount pricing and loan supported college financing.
2. Re-Gens have a distinctly different relationship with their parents
Millennial students are children of Baby Boomers. We often refer to them as the “trophy generation” or “special snowflakes.” In reality, Erickson explained, the trophies were always intended for their high-achieving Baby Boomer parents who had equally high expectations of their children—the Millennials were merely “the conduit” for Baby Boomers to give trophies to themselves. That’s a glib, but apt, way of reminding us that colleges and universities work with families as a unit and the nature of that family relationship says a lot about what colleges and universities might expect.
Casting forward, Re-Gens are the children of Gen X parents, and we should expect this parent-child relationship to be quite different. Erickson’s research indicates that Gen X parents don’t necessarily want their child to achieve at the highest levels; instead, they want their child to achieve a personally fulfilling life. In turn, we might expect Re-Gen prospective college students to espouse this viewpoint as they go through college search. Eduventures evidence on trade-offs between price sensitivity and academic fit also shows that there are a healthy number of students whose price sensitivity remains inelastic (34%) if they can find comfort in their choice of college. There are far fewer students who are concerned with finding excellence (17%).
Our take: For Re-Gen, colleges and universities should recognize that messages of excellence, while important to certain subsets of students must be correctly balanced with messages of personal fit. Eduventures research on prospective student mindsets showed six distinct ways of thinking about upcoming college experiences, and the majority of them did not focus on academic excellence as a critical component.
3. Re-Gens are coordinators, not planners
According to Erickson, people in older generations tend to be planners. That is to say, if you want to meet a friend for dinner, you call or text to decide when and where to meet, usually with some notice. This behavior is substantially different from Re-Gen who might flip the script somewhat by Snap Chatting their group of friends when standing in front of a restaurant that catches their attention. The message is, “I’m here now, who’s hungry?”
Eduventures hasn’t directly investigated this phenomenon of coordination, but our 2016 National Survey of Admitted Students does show that the number one concern of students headed to college is the ability to manage the competing responsibilities of coursework, social life, and work. Perhaps students recognize that without the structure of high school and left to their own devices, they may struggle to fit into the expectations for college.
Our take: How does this generation of coordinators adapt to colleges and universities who have carefully constructed curricula, majors, and degree plans? This is hard to say. We instinctively know we can’t have an unplanned curriculum (an un-curriculum). Even so, faculty and administrators with planning-oriented mindsets should be open to the possibility for more freedom and spontaneity in student learning experiences. Journeys with clear destinations, but freedom to roam, are preferable to restricted pathways.
At EM Day, Erickson reminded us that we must respect each generation’s mental models as wholly intrinsic developmental frames of reference. These are not character flaws. It is important to acknowledge that we look at Re-Gen through our generational frame of reference, and it would be wise to step outside of ourselves to consider their viewpoint on the world. Our Eduventures research further highlights distinct ways of thinking even within Re-Gen’s common frames of reference.