Today’s Teens Questioning the Status Quo When It Comes to College

February 18, 2021

MINNEAPOLIS—After experiencing an unprecedented year marked by a global pandemic, racial unrest and a turbulent U.S. presidential election, today’s teens have shifted their thinking when it comes to their educational path after high school.

Their likelihood of pursuing a four-year degree has diminished substantially over the past eight months with only slightly more than half of Gen Z teens now considering it. In addition, 52 percent believe they can achieve professional success with education attained in three years or less, and just one-fourth believe a four-year college degree is the only route to a good job.

And while 62 percent want to forge their own educational path, many high school students feel uninformed about the options available, with 63 percent of teens wishing their high school provided more information about the variety of postsecondary schooling opportunities available.

The statistics were gathered over the past 12 months in three national surveys conducted by ECMC Group and VICE Media. The surveys were conducted in February 2020, May 2020 and January 2021 to uncover how high school students are thinking about and planning for their future education and careers amidst an ever-changing environment marked by virtual classrooms and economic upheaval.

“High school students and their families have faced a great deal of change in their lives over the past year, which is translating into uncertainty as they look to their career paths,” said Jeremy Wheaton, president and CEO of ECMC Group, a nonprofit focused on helping students succeed. “While this shift in mindset isn’t surprising, it is up to us as leaders and mentors to educate learners about their future opportunities, which includes raising awareness about the variety of postsecondary learning options that are available.”

For those who have been following the discussion, it will not come as a shock that this demographic is extremely concerned about the cost of higher education. In fact, the number one thing teens would change about college is the price tag. Their second top concern is making sure the path they take directly connects them to a future career. Specifically, the top three things Gen Z teens are most concerned about:

  • 50 percent—graduating with a high amount of debt
  • 44 percent—not getting a job after they graduate
  • 40 percent—not being prepared for a job after school ends

Additional findings include:

Gen Z teens want skills and quick paths to careers

  • 61 percent believe a skill-based education (e.g., trade skills, nursing, STEM, etc.) makes sense in today’s world
  • 45 percent agree that a program they can complete in a shorter period of time (within two years) makes sense
  • Nearly 25 percent are more likely to attend a career and technical education school due to their experience with COVID-19

Gen Z teens want government and employers to play a role

  • 50 percent believe the government should provide additional money to pay off student loans
  • 39 percent believe the government should subsidize/pay off debt
  • 39 percent believe the government should subsidize/pay for college
  • 38 percent believe companies should provide formal education
  • 37 percent believe companies should provide money to pay off student loans

COVID-19 has had a direct impact on their future education plans

  • 53 percent are worried about their future
  • 40 percent do not feel adequately prepared for the next grade
  • 29 percent said the pandemic’s financial impact makes it less likely they will attend a four-year college
  • 24 percent said the financial impact will make them less likely to pursue any education beyond high school

“While the insights we uncovered illustrate a high level of indecision, they also demonstrate that today’s teens are using a critical eye when it comes to analyzing their options and charting their future course,” said Wheaton. “We must take this opportunity to hear their concerns and provide pathways that will meet their educational needs now and into the future.”

The surveys are part of a new Question The Quo campaign, developed by ECMC Group to empower students to learn about the various higher education options available and to take the career path that’s right for them.

Survey Methodology
ECMC Group, in partnership with VICE Media, conducted three national Question The Quo surveys. The first survey of 1,177 high school students was conducted Feb. 25-March 2, 2020; the second survey of 1,025 high school students was conducted May 14-20, 2020; the third survey of 1,001 high school students was conducted January 4-19, 2021.