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No matter how old or prestigious a higher education institution is, there’s one thing no college or university can get away from: generational shifts. The media still loves to talk about Millennials, but for the majority of higher ed, institutions are now trying to appeal to and appease the next generation: Gen Z. Widely defined as being born between 1996 and 2015, the average college senior and freshman are safely within this new generation.

So what’s changed between the generations? This year’s Generation Influence: Reaching Gen Z in the new digital paradigm report, conducted by The Center for Generational Kinetics (CGK) and commissioned by WP Engine, looks into Gen Z habits and expectations. While the study itself is designed to help developers and marketers, a lot of the lessons can be transferred and adopted by higher ed.

The crux of the study is that Gen Zers don’t differentiate between the “real” and online world. To them, they’re one and the same. And the rising collegiate classes are only going to be more ingrained in this digital world. 

For many of us who are older than Generation Z, this requires a different way of thinking. So let’s break it down into action insights to help higher ed appeal to Gen Z.

There is No More Digital Divide

From the study

“Gen Z is inextricably tied to the digital world, and the way they identify with it is rooted in their deep connection and familiarity with the Internet. This generation spends more time connected to the web than any other generation (on mobile devices in particular). …

This generation sees the web as the starting line, it’s an intrinsic part of their everyday lives. Given this omnipresent role of connected technology, Gen Z’s expectations for the digital world far exceed those of any generation that has come before them. …

The concept of signing on or off is archaic to Gen Z—for them, what happens online reverberates everywhere, and this “always-on” mentality is a key ingredient to understanding their identity as true digital natives.”

What this means for higher ed

Higher ed institutions simply cannot ignore the digital experience. From your public-facing website to the software vendors you partner with, this generation is the true definition of “digital natives” and demands seamless, intuitive digital experiences.

If you think the digital experiences you provide are “good enough” or that students will use them simply because they’re important, it’s time to rethink that strategy. Upcoming students will increasingly judge the overall quality of your institution’s educational experience based on digital experiences. For prospective students, this means judging a potential college by it’s website and social media profiles. For current students, this means forming their opinion about the quality of their education and the quality of the institution (including if they’d recommend it to others and support it as an alum) based on the digital systems and opportunities you offer.

The lack of a digital divide also means students expect to be able to seamlessly interact online and the real world. Many institutions are facing this challenge head-on by offering services like tutoring, office hours and advising sessions online in addition to traditional on-campus offerings. Much the same way healthcare has had to embrace telehealth to meet patient expectations and availability, higher ed needs to offer online solutions because that is the world current students live in.

And did you catch how the report specifically calls out mobile devices? When we say online, we mean both web-based and mobile. You can no longer solely rely on desktop and web experiences. For Gen Z, digital experiences are mobile experiences.

You might also like: Why a Mobile Student Portal is a Must

Digital Experiences Need to be Personalized

From the study

“More than any other generation, one of the defining characteristics of Gen Z is that they prefer the Internet and connected devices to become more predictive in the future, ultimately predicting what they need at all times—and providing it, an expectation that is already coming to fruition with the increase in online orders and delivery.

Gen Z is more enthusiastic about leveraging new technologies like voice and predictive personalization to power digital experiences. 64% of Gen Z respondents said within the next five years they expect the Internet will determine what they do on a daily basis, compared to 58% of respondents in general. 

To Gen Z personalization isn’t creepy, it’s a desirable prerequisite for a trusted brand. For example, 75% of Gen Z, compared to 56% of Boomers, are more likely to buy a product if they can customize it. Withhold this from Gen Z at your own peril, as it’s clearly something they want.”

What this means for higher ed

While security and data privacy remains a concern for all generations, Gen Z sees the online world as less of an “other” place, making them more willing to incorporate it into their lives. As with anything in our everyday lives, Gen Z wants their online experience to be personalized to their likes and needs. 

The online world has a leg up on the real world in this capacity. While a physical store isn’t going to only show you clothes you’d be interested in and in your size, that’s the type of experience the digital world can provide. As consumer-facing businesses get better at this, students expect the same level of data-driven personalization in other digital arenas — like higher ed. Things like surfacing important resources based on student persona or a triggering event (like a poor test score) and offering tailored degree and career guidance based on academic predilection may become higher ed trends to satisfy Gen Z preferences. (We already know that a personalized student portal increases adoption and engagement.)

Going hand-in-hand with these types of tailored interactions is the ability for individuals to more specifically personalize their experience to their preferences. Predictive digital experiences can do wonderful things, but at the end of the day, it’s the individual who needs to put the finishing touches on their experience. (Deciding who to follow, creating shortcuts to important resources, etc.) Students are especially keen on personalization when plotting their educational journey to success. Giving them tools that surface exactly the information they need without having to hunt for it will become a hallmark of ed tech sooner than later.

You might also like: Get Granular with Roles: Why Personalization Matters

They Engage Online ALL. THE. TIME.

From the study

Marketers should embrace the idea that Gen Z loves to create and give them opportunities to do so within the digital experiences they provide. Harness their enthusiasm for social media by providing them with content they can create and share. …

Equally compelling, 56% of Gen Z is friends with someone they only know online and have never met in person.” 

What this means for higher ed

When there’s no difference between online and the “real” world, you start to treat the two the same — especially Gen Z. Higher ed institutions spend a lot of time fostering community interaction, enagemement and a sense of belonging. It’s time to extend those efforts to an online arena. 

COVID-19 ripped the luxury and familiarity of a centralized campus out from under us. Institutions quickly learned that they needed to provide a way for students to stay connected and interact with one another even as everyone was so far apart. As hybrid modalities settle in to stay and an increasing number of students are turning to part time learning and online learning, creating a digital experience that mirrors the community and connections of a traditional college campus will be increasingly important. Luckily for higher ed, Gen Z finds this world natural. If you provide an engagement platform that appeals to their modern sense of online community, they’ll likely take easily to using it. 

Embracing Online Experiences

How much college students rely on online experiences has been steadily increasing for more than 20 years. Once smartphones and mobile apps gained traction, that march turned into a sprint. Higher education has been working to keep up, but we’ve reached a critical point. Students no longer view digital experiences as something different than real life experiences. The way the online world works is the way the world works in their eyes. (Sometimes in ways older generations can’t quite comprehend.)

We’re very much just at the beginning of college-aged Gen Zers, so this paradigm shift is only going to become more ingrained and likely even deeper. By 2025, college freshmen and the classes that follow will officially have never lived in a world where the iPhone and Facebook didn’t exist. While it may take a shift in the way higher education thinks and a commitment to a new kind of digital student experience, it’s an important transformation that all institutions need to pay attention to sooner rather than later.