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College in the Time of the Pandemic

The Only Certainty is That the Collegiate Experience Will Be VERY Different

student at her desk with laptop and smiling with a cnbc logo on top right

  • Campus life has been upended
  • Online classes will become more mainstream
  • Gen Z will look to minimize the cost of higher education

For millions of people, the college experience was a memorable one. Many remember the look and feel of being on campus, studying in groups or individually at the library or in your dorm late at night, and the energized environment of a large lecture hall or interactive senior seminar. All of these experiences have been challenged or completely shuttered in recent months due to the pandemic.

Colleges and universities across the country were forced to rapidly move to an online format or close completely this past spring as they rapidly tried to adapt to a situation most have never encountered before: a global pandemic. Now that the fall semester is on the horizon, colleges, students, faculty, parents, and college communities are trying to determine what higher education should look like in Fall 2020.

CGK President Jason Dorsey, an expert on Gen Z and author of the forthcoming book, Zconomy, shared with CNBC the latest information from our research as it relates to Gen Z, college, and the future of learning.

Campus Life and the Pandemic for Gen Z

Recently the CDC offered guidelines for a return to “college life.” However, spikes in the COVID-19 infection rate, dramatically varying risk and health profiles, and international as well as domestic travel difficulties make the many different policies and procedures being discussed a very fluid, challenging, emotional, and highly politicized must-solve project.

As Jason shared with CNBC, “The challenge is that we’ve seen very different responses to the current situation, from communities asking everyone to wear masks to other communities only 30 minutes away where very few people wear masks — and all these norms will collide together on campus.” Additionally, activities such as Greek Life, intramural sports, and dorm living will be greatly impacted, to say the least. All of this will have a ripple effect on families of students, faculty, communities, and the countless support staff, vendors, and more who are directly or indirectly impacted by higher education.

What Will Colleges Offer in the Fall?

Typically, universities offer myriad class options, extracurricular activities, on-campus meals, a variety of events and experiences, and so much more. In these uncertain times, colleges are already moving away from traditional in-person activities and towards more virtual experiences—including college tours—as the technology becomes both necessary and increasingly normalized. However, online education is not always ideal. It has many limitations, particularly when serving students who may not have access to the technological tools they need to be successful, a need for individualized instruction or group activities, as well as physical requirements for programs in science, art, music, and more.

As Jason shared with CNBC, “For as much as people complain about video chat and online platforms, the reality is these technologies have brought education, connection, and community to students’ homes around the world. It likely will be further integrated even when higher education eventually has the option to offer all classes in-person.”

Gen Z’s Cost Consciousness May Have a Huge Impact on the Price of College

CGK’s research has consistently shown that Gen Z is more fiscally conservative than prior generations. They saw their parents grapple with the 2008 Great Recession and have taken those experiences to heart in their own lives as they come of age and think about spending, saving, and money in general.

When it comes to choosing their path of higher education, we expect this behavior be in full effect—and reinforced by their own parents who are also feeling the weight of record-setting job losses. As Jason shared on his video interview with CNBC, “What our research shows is that when it comes to money and paying for college/university relative to other career pathways, is that Gen Z is very fiscally conservative, meaning that they are more practical with their money so Gen Z went into this experience already trying to figure out, ‘how do I minimize the cost?’”.

Jason continued, “[Millennials] were told get into the best college you can, get loans and it will all work out fine, and that’s been a huge headwind for my generation.” Jason knows this not only through the 65+ generational studies he and the team at CGK have led, but also because he is a Millennial!

What Can Parents, Higher Education Leaders, and Employers Do Now?

With the rapid and dramatic pandemic-related changes and challenges taking place in higher education and those dependent on it (employers, communities, governments, and more), leaders must have accurate, current data and insights about Gen Z to ensure that their organizations can effectively engage, build trust, and lead this important generation as employees, customers, and trendsetters.

At CGK, we are continually researching Gen Z and their mindset, behaviors, actions, and priorities. This includes uncovering how they think about work, money, brands, the economy, education, and much more. We provide these insights as part of our strategic advisory work,  webinars, and virtual keynote presentations to help leaders gain and act on the research-based insights they need to make key strategic decisions.

Contact our friendly team here to learn how we can be your trusted generational resource during this time of uncertainty and rapid change.

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