Generation Z has earned a reputation for focusing on the pragmatic aspects of education. After all, this generation grew up on the heels of the Great Recession, which in many cases impacted older siblings who graduated from college in debt and without hope of employment. They may have had parents lose jobs or become resigned to underemployment. Today, they are listening to discussions about the next “bubble”—the student loan crisis. As a result, Gen Z has become highly risk-adverse when it comes to finances. Not only have they seen the fragility of one financial reality, but they are also keenly aware that graduating from college can leave a student unemployed and thousands of dollars in debt.

The intensely competitive environment for job-seekers has had an impact on this generation. In focus groups with young people, Gen Z shows they understand that when they step into the workforce they are competing with others, locally and internationally, who can do what they do better, and maybe for less. Due to their connected nature, they are acutely aware of the gig economy and societal issues around income inequality. This has created an intensely competitive environment for these students. It has also put young people under a great deal of pressure. Teachers often say that students today do not even have a childhood. From a young age, there is an intense focus on academic excellence, sports accolades, resumes, positioning to get in the best college possible, and so on.

Having watched the drama of the recession unfold, and being focused on competing from early on, members of Gen Z tend to look at college more strategically, selecting practical majors that will translate into a career, rather than following their intellectual passion. It has also made Gen Z more aware of the opportunities they may have lost due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

An increasingly competitive environment

The economic backdrop of Gen Z’s educational and early professional life is poised to be one of crippling inequalities. Growing up with this type of environment is likely to push this generation’s inherently competitive nature further.

It has also pressured Gen Z to rethink their majors. According to a September 2020 study from the UMass Dartmouth Center for Marketing Research, pandemic-induced stress encouraged 15% of surveyed Gen Z college students to change directions in their academic careers. The students reported being motivated by the desire for a job that provides flexibility (57%) and stronger job security (51%). More than a third (39%) reported a change in values that encouraged them to pursue a career in a field that is considered “essential.”

While the pandemic may have heightened this competitive environment, it has also led to a sense of loss around the social capital that students hoped to gain in their higher education experience. Because this generation views education primarily as a launchpad for their careers, they are keenly aware of the difference between an in-person college network and the virtual experience that they have had. They are very aware that they have not started building social networks and have missed the valuable interaction with faculty members that often leads to doctoral program placement and other graduate school opportunities. This generation is also savvy enough to understand that if they do not meet new people and form friendships, they are missing part of what they are paying for, particularly with expensive private schools.

The need for intentional amenities

In the post-pandemic world, students are more attuned to post-college life and where their studies will lead them. As a result, intentional amenities are even more important than they were a couple of years ago. Housing officers will want to prioritize features and programs that bring educational experiences into living spaces. These might include study rooms, group working areas, presentation spaces, music practice rooms, and the like. These spaces were becoming increasingly important before the pandemic but will be valuable differentiators today.

The desire to maximize the college experience, coupled with the social awareness and unity around causes and movements, could also translate to an increased desire to be in living-learning communities focused on common interests. While it may take some creative thinking, housing officers can identify ways to build these communities while effectively ensuring social distancing as the pandemic lingers.

For more, download our full research on Welcoming Back Gen Z Residents in a Post-Pandemic World or register for our upcoming webinar.

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