Gen Z Views Traditional College Path as Old School

December 2, 2020

It’s a major time of disruption and evolution for education and our workforce. While each shifted to new delivery and employment models due to the current coronavirus pandemic environment, it is becoming more apparent that those changes may usher in transformations that are bound to alter the industries for the long term.

For educators, as well as the employers in the field, now is the time to rethink and reimagine how best to connect to current and future learners in the postsecondary education space.

With every new generation comes the potential for new trends. The same is true for Generation Z, who, like previous generations before them, want to blaze their own trails. What is different with this group is that they are interested in forging their own path as they look to their education beyond high school.

We recently partnered with VICE Media to conduct two national surveys of Gen Z teens age 14–18 and found that while a majority regard postsecondary education as important to their future, nearly three quarters would consider a path other than a four-year degree. This group also appreciates the opportunity for hands-on learning and sees the benefit of a skills-based education when searching for employment after earning their diploma or certificate.

In addition, this group is very concerned with the cost of college, with 74 percent saying their future education and career decisions will be impacted by the amount of debt they’d need to take on. In addition, 56 percent expect the government to provide additional money to help pay off loans, and 46 percent expect companies to provide formal education that upgrades work-relevant skills. This mindset illustrates that their decisions will be dictated by many factors, which educators, employers, policymakers and even parents need to consider.

In a world where the economy has been upended and learners are questioning the value of a four-year degree, other paths make sense. Options like career and technical education (CTE) are shorter in duration, less expensive and provide a pathway to a career in a multitude of fields with the potential for upskilling and advancement.

By supporting these educational paths, we have the opportunity to meaningfully impact student outcomes and, ultimately, our society as a whole. Shorter, skills-based education is not only good from a student perspective, but when done properly, can better address employer needs. To make this a reality, we must shift our mindset by placing value on skills versus focusing solely on degrees.

By aligning on what the next generation of workers wants in their future postsecondary education and careers as we evolve to accommodate the new normal, we will be better off in the long run. This connection will help bolster our economy as our nation recovers and will help our society develop a new attitude toward education for years to come.

Todd Steele is president of ECMC Education.