Is Your Student Housing Ready for Gen Z?

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From the Baby Boomers to Millennials, every generation brings its own behaviors and preferences to college campuses and higher education institutions have had to adapt to changing times.

Housing officers are on the front line of this phenomenon and will find that today’s incoming student body is no exception. Generation Z, born roughly between 1996 and around 2010, is set to become the fastest-growing generation in both the workplace and the marketplace within the next five years. Today, they’re redefining education expectations across many areas, including student housing.

Evidence indicates that Gen-Z students tend to value higher education and understand the numerous benefits that it has to offer. In fact, it’s likely that a larger percentage of Gen Z will attend and graduate from college than any previous generation, including Millennials. So despite rising competitive challenges, including the increasing popularity of online schools and community colleges among value-minded applicants, many higher education institutions can expect rising applications and enrollments as Gen Z makes its way through high school. Housing officers need to begin preparing now to attract these students, because what they expect from campus housing is drastically different from generations past.

The traits that define this generation are going to dictate changes to both on and off-campus housing facilities and programs. Housing managers and the institutions need to prepare for some major changes to recruit and retain this up-and-coming generation.

Chapter 1: A Generation That is Aware of the World

Many experts refer to Generation Z as the “Throwback Generation,” as their focus on hard work, social issues and frugality seem reminiscent of their grandparent’s peers. But it may be more appropriate to consider this tech-savvy generation as entirely unique.

After all, Generation Z already has a reputation for seeking to change the world. Their constant connectivity and social media savvy has made this generation much more aware of what’s going on in the world around them than previous generations. They are passionate about making their world a better place and blazing their own path. As a result, housing officers need to prepare today to meet entirely new expectations.

Here are three ways Generation Z’s social awareness will impact student housing.

THEY EXPECT A HIGH RETURN ON THEIR EDUCATION INVESTMENT

Every generation is shaped by the conversations and events taking place in their formative teenage years. Most significantly, Generation Z grew up in the wake of the Great Recession. Having watched their parents and even older siblings struggle financially, they’ve become fiscally conservative. This generation is setting goals and is studying hard to achieve them. Practical Generation Z knows the value of saving and will make cost-conscious decisions.

But this group of teens has also grown up in a world where they can be entrepreneurs at 12 years old. Generation Z grew up selling products on Etsy and launching ad-supported influencer communities. Take Ryan for example; Forbes reported the 6-year-old YouTube star earned $11 million in 2017 by reviewing toys. Given that a majority of Gen Zers ultimately want to run their own business,5 one might expect these youths to head from high school to workforce. Quite the contrary: Generation Z sees higher education as a launching pad to a high-paying career.

How does this impact student housing? Although they see value in higher education, Generation Z won’t pay excessively for it. They’ve worked hard for their money. They are already saving for retirement in record rates. Now Generation Z expects to see clear value from their purchases, including from student housing.

THEY WANT TO CONNECT TO CREATE CHANGE

At 18, Afghan teen Malala Yousafzai became the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize. In 2018, the teens of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., led the March For Our Lives movement and created a national platform for changing conversations around gun safety. Confronting racism and prejudice are leading concerns for Generation Z. Research shows that more than a third of Gen Z has donated time or money to a cause they care about, and a quarter has boycotted an activity or company. Protests are back in style.

This has major implications for student housing, particularly related to contracted services such as dining which can sometimes be seen as an extension of campus housing. Housing officers will be best served by maintaining a focus on customer service and rapid responsiveness.

As this group looks for a way to make a difference, they want to connect with their peers to discuss issues and find solutions. This translates to housing with on-campus residences that offer housing based on shared student interests. Special interest communities might be formed around topics such as making a difference, leadership, or wellness, while living learning communities may be formed around topics of study.

Of course, Generation Z also relies on social media to disseminate ideas. They’re used to finding the answers they need online. After all, these digital natives have never known a time without the Internet, so they expect to be literally plugged in, with strong Wi-Fi connectivity. Dorms and apartments need the bandwidth to handle Sunday night traffic, when everyone is watching Netflix, writing papers and doing research on three different devices. While bandwidth on college campuses tripled from 2012 to 2017, with more than 71 percent of schools offering at least 1 GB, students continue to add to the number of web-enabled smart devices they expect your connection to handle.

THEY SEE ENVIRONMENTAL RESPONSIBILITY AS A GIVEN

Generation Z grew up taking part in conversations around environmentalism, and they see sustainability as a necessity. More universities and colleges are taking steps to establish sustainability initiatives, and this should extend to campus housing. These students want environmentally responsible buildings. For example, if the campus dining hall composts, apartment housing should consider getting creative about providing students an opportunity to compost as well. From green roofs to green design choices like LED lighting, high-efficiency washing machines, and low-flow shower heads and toilets, these choices are truly important to students searching for a place to live.

Chapter 2: A Resourceful Generation Skeptical of Information Sources

Colleges are now marketing to a generation that has grown up finding answers to virtually any question by searching for a YouTube tutorial. Now, Generation Z is taking its online resourcefulness to a new level as they enter college and the workforce.

STAYING CONNECTED

As we mentioned in the last chapter, Generation Z has never known a world without the Internet. These digital natives are constantly looking for their own information and, as you might imagine, they’re going to expect Wi-Fi connectivity across campus so they can get it. For colleges and universities, ample high-speed Internet will be essential in creating a positive student experience, and to this generation’s ability to work efficiently.

But what they’re looking for online also could impact the housing experience that you provide.

WHERE THEY’RE GETTING INFORMATION

Generation Z is careful about the sources they go to for information. They’ve become skeptical of marketing messages—much like their notoriously skeptical parents, Generation X. After all, why listen to a paid message when they’re able to find authentic feedback to a product or service so easily online?

Micro-influencers—social media accounts with 30,000 or fewer followers—are growing robustly thanks to Generation Z’s reliance on their peers for insight. This reliance is due in part to their pervasive mistrust of corporations. That mistrust hits campuses in a number of ways. In recent years, for example, students have organized to protest dining and other service providers for a range of reasons. But it also means members of Gen Z will turn to one another for insight they can trust.

This group knows when they’re being sold on something. They’re used to sorting through product reviews or interacting on Instagram where sponsored content is labeled. Because honest feedback from individuals is a higher priority for this generation than their earlier peers, they’re likely to follow input from influencers they trust. It’s why influencer marketing on Instagram is a billion-dollar business.

WHY THIS MATTERS TO YOU

So, what does this mean for housing officers? For starters, it means you have to offer an authentically good housing experience to appeal to residents. Current residents are talking about their housing experience, and your future residents are listening. Your students are your most powerful marketers, but they’re also quick to jump on Twitter to complain. As long as you’re proactive on creating the environment they expect and responsive to complaints, you can steer the conversation around housing.

Housing officers can also encourage the conversations. Residential building tour videos posted on apps like Snapchat, where 45% of users are between 18-24 years old, can get students talking about a school’s competitive and attractive housing options. Creating such a story for your community, to which students can tag their photos and videos, can help further boost that sense of community for which Gen Z is looking.

Chapter 3: Balancing Competition with Collaboration and Community

Given what Generation Z is up against in the work force, it’s perhaps no surprise these students are known for being highly competitive. For starters, parents have been pushing to position their child to succeed a new income environment with growing inequality.

There’s been an intense focus for students on achieving academic excellence, developing standout resumés and positioning to get in the best college possible. In addition, focus groups with young people shows that Generation Z understands that when they step into the workforce they’re competing with applicants from all over the world who can do what they do better, possibly for less.

Together, these forces have created an intensely competitive environment. Having grown up facing these pressures, it’s no wonder that Generation Z’s school career is more focused on studying than generations past. Housing officers must recognize that studying will be a large portion of how students utilize their living space, and will play a big focus in selecting where they want to live.

CAN THE COMPETITIVE GENERATION ALSO COLLABORATE?

Some reports indicate that the competitive nature of Gen-Z means they are more interested in working independently. After all, they were raised by highly independent Gen-Xers, so today’s youths are used to doing things on their own.

However, other reports call Generation Z more collaborative than Millennials. They grew up in a K-12 environment that emphasized conflict resolution. Collaborative technologies are innate to them.

Before pulling out all common rooms, it’s important that housing offers recognize that being collaborative and independent don’t have to be mutually exclusive. In fact, despite their impudence in the workplace, this group is often hungry for in-person connections and a real-life community. This need for community could impact how they choose where to live.

CREATING A COMMUNITY

The living-learning environment has become one popular method for bringing students together to foster collaboration and community. How this looks can vary. This may include mixed-use communities with classrooms and residential units for both students and faculty in the same building, or collaborative study areas positioned throughout a residential building. Common areas in suites, collaborative study spaces and inviting lounge areas are all features that are providing the sense of community for which Gen-Z students are looking.

In addition, housing officers can tap into technology to foster social interaction, rather than replacing it. Some student housing brands are using property apps to keep residents informed about community activities. For example, personalized push notifications can provide alerts around evening activities the moment a resident walks in the door, giving students the push they need to be part of the larger student community.

HOW HOUSING OFFICERS CAN TAP INTO THE COMMUNITY

Thanks to social media, this is a generation that is easily influenced by each other and is often hungry to offer their viewpoints. For example, when looking for suggestions on where to go to college, they’re not looking at U.S. News’ Best Colleges. They’re leaning into the people they know or influencers they trust. They have an incredible ability to tap into the collective to make decisions, make change and learn about different topics. This online community is likely to play a significant role in how these students make decisions about where they’ll live. If your residents are talking about community experiences or design elements they love, expect tomorrow’s college applicants are listening.

Chapter 4: A Focus on Wellness

Given their studious nature, Generation Z is less focused on rebellion and more focused on acing tests than generations past. This goal-oriented generation wants to improve themselves, so these college kids are more interested in studying over partying compared to previous generations.

But this generation isn’t just focused on improving their minds. This is a generation interested in holistic wellness and its impact on their overall health.

Every generation has had a conversation taking place nationally around health that influenced their teenage years. For Generation X, the topic was cigarettes; Millennial teenagers saw the effects of “your brain on drugs.” Today’s teenagers have come of age when health messaging emphasized reducing obesity, limiting sugar intake and the idea that “sitting is the new smoking.” Generation Z was raised to see health and wellness as a necessary balance. Healthy living is second nature to these students. And this innate interest in wellness will have a major impact on what they expect from their campus housing.

LOCALLY SOURCED INGREDIENTS

Generation Z has an awareness that what they put in their body impacts everything: their health, the environment and the local economy. As a result of this trend, dining operators on college campuses have been forced to innovate. For example, many on-campus dining halls will tout locally sourced or all-natural ingredients. Students are also looking for more custom and made-to-order options, which affects both stocked ingredients and their delivery.

This greater focus on healthful, locally sourced food has also created a generation of young foodies. Generation Z wants to know about the hot food spots nearby. Consider campus fast food out as a fad.

AVAILABLE FITNESS FEATURES

For student housing, this focus on health and wellness translates to a new perception around the housing experiences that should be available. In years past, college students were offered access to a recreation center. Sometimes they even used it. Today’s fitness-focused students want easy access to fitness amenities. Rec centers aren’t going away, but these individuals are expecting to see a fitness room offered near or as part of their campus housing.

EMPHASIS ON OUTDOORS

Despite Generation Z’s reliance on technology—or perhaps because of it—this generation expresses a fascination with the physical world. The 2017 North American Camping Report, an annual independent study supported by Kampgrounds of America Inc., shows 81 percent of Generation Z surveyed believe it is very important to spend time in outdoors activities, with 58 percent expressing enthusiasm for camping specifically. Nationwide, national parks saw a record-setting number of visits in recent years.

Some experts attribute this interest as a response to the discussion around climate change, but it can perhaps be more broadly attributed to growing up in a digital world. There’s a resulting fascination with the natural world of which they may have less awareness.

WHY THIS MATTERS TO YOU

For student housing, the fascination with the outdoors translates to an increased interest in attractive outdoor spaces that invite students to study, read and gather with one another.

The University of Miami’s 12-acre residential village features a grand courtyard, outdoor study spots, terraces and recreational spaces including a climbing wall. In the 350-square-foot “ Yard” outside its College Ave. Apartments, Rutgers University added a high-definition video board to show football games and major news events. It’s an outdoor gathering space with a nod to its high-tech community. Outdoor gathering is in, and housing officers who think outside the housing box will gain greater interest from this group.

Chapter 5: Pragmatic Yet Sophisticated

When Millennials came to college, many came to the experience with the idea that you go to college to learn how to learn, how to exercise curiosity, what exploration looks like, and to become more independent.

Then, thanks to the Great Recession, many of them returned home to live with their parents, unable to get a job or pay off high student loans.

Having watched this drama unfold, impacting older siblings in many cases, members of Generation Z are coming into college knowing exactly what they want to do and how their major will translate into a career. Generation Z is much more focused on the pragmatic experience of education over the exploratory pieces—and this drive is having a major impact on what Gen-Z expects from their student housing.

THE COST-CONSCIOUS GENERATION

Generation Z is largely taking a practical approach to education. They will likely select a major based on the degree that will help them find success in a certain career. That practicality extends to campus housing.

This pragmatic generation is focused on working first, playing later, so a living environment that supports studying is essential. Schools are seeing success with mixing classrooms and residence halls. Living communities and themed housing all appeal to this generation.

Price has a huge impact on Generation Z’s decision-making. Research indicates that cost is the most important factor Generation Z consumers consider when deciding on a purchase, and no marketing can convince them to buy if the price is too high. In fact, a study from the Center for Generational Kinetics found that that 77% of Gen Z, aged 14 to 21, already earned their own spending money through freelance work, a part time job, or earned allowance—nearly the same percentage of earners as surveyed Millennials who are firmly planted in the workforce.

Finding a school that won’t leave them in debt is essential to Generation Z, and this won’t stop at housing. If you’re hoping to attract this group with amenities, you must be able to show clear value for what they’re paying.

AN EXPECTATION FOR AESTHETICS

Despite their practical, cost-conscious attitude, Generation Z expects their physical space to be attractive. Generation Z grew up seeing as normal the strikingly futuristic Apple stores and the rich design of grocery stores like Whole Foods. They’ve grown up watching HGTV with their parents. As good design has become more accessible and more affordable, this generation has become accustomed to an attractive environment—and they know exactly what they want when it comes to housing style.

Students know when housing officers don’t consider the human experience of a space. Spaces lacking art, with poor lighting and a sterile feel will quickly turn away these students.

Balancing this cost-conscious attitude with student sophistication means that housing officers will have to be selective in which they design elements they include. Generation Z isn’t looking for flashy add-ons; they want rich, human-focused design that strengthens their academic pursuits and community-building.

Conclusion

Every generation brings its own unique expectations to school, but with today’s competitive forces at play it’s critical that higher education housing officers are more responsive than ever in meeting these expectations.

And because this change is happening fast, flexibility will be key for many housing officers who are looking to attract Generation Z students.

While this generation expects a lot from its environment—from quality furnishings to environmentally friendly utilities—cost will be a
driving concern. Health, wellness and a connection to nature are important for this “iGeneration”, so the outside environment around your housing options will also make a difference. And despite their reputation for being competitive, community and collaboration are important, so don’t lose your gathering spaces—instead transform them to support group studying and big conversations.

As this generation continues to grow the microinfluencer industry, housing officers need to plan carefully how they’ll share their message—because today’s students are already communicating a message. With advance planning and rapid responsiveness, you can shape the conversation with tomorrow’s potential residents.

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