The dreaded demographic cliff combined with headlines about Gen Z’s shifting opinions about higher education, is understandably keeping higher ed marketers up at night. Not only has Gen Z interest dropped 20 percentage points in two years (from 71 percent in May 2020 to 51% in January 2022), but trust in U.S. colleges and universities is lower with Gen Z than with any other generation. This trust gap makes the prospects of a quick rebound unlikely—and makes the stakes for striking the right message and tone with Gen Z even greater if an institution wants to buck the trend and drive enrollment.  

With several clients in the higher ed space, Gatesman wanted to dive deeper than surface headlines to understand what Zers themselves thought about these trends. We reviewed the underlying secondary research, conducted analysis to understand Gen Z’s psychological profile, and solicited feedback from Zers* themselves in a focus group. 

What we found was a nuanced, mature perspective from our Gen Z participants who have legitimate ROI concerns on their investment, but also yearn for the higher ed experience which feels out of reach. This opens the door for savvy higher ed marketers to connect in ways to help their institutions stand out from the crowd.  

So, what did our Gen Zer’s think?  

We shared the latest headlines and stats with our Zers and asked if they were true. Our participants agreed that Gen Z IS rethinking college, but objected to the idea they are “opting out” of higher ed. Instead, they said, they were being “strategic with their money.”  As they talked through their perspectives, four key themes emerged:

  • Financial Anxiety: It’s no surprise that Gen Z is worried about finances, having watched Millennials before them struggle with school debt and their own families face financial uncertainty with the pandemic, but this generation is REALLY worried, to the point of potentially skipping higher education altogether. LIsten to their first-hand perspectives here.
  • Not in a Rush: Understanding the high cost of education, Gen Z is willing to wait, taking a gap year or gaining some work experience first to have a better idea of what they want to do and avoid potentially wasting money by switching majors. 
  • OK with an Alternate Path: Unlike prior generations where attending university was considered a prerequisite for “the good life,” this generation feels that there are many paths to success, so they will not make the decision to enroll automatically. They need to be convinced of the ROI, and the payoff can’t be too far off down the road because the future is not guaranteed.
  • Yearning: Despite their pragmatism and anxiety, Zers feel a bit short-changed if they can’t have the full higher ed experience, and they yearn for the connections possible with a more traditional experience. They missed out on a lot of development during high school due to COVID, and they wish they didn’t have to miss more. 

Revealed in these themes is some good news for higher ed marketers: deep down, Gen Z wants their product. Their anxiety and financial realism are holding them back, but there are ways to tailor offerings and messaging to address these objections. Consider these tips to show you are in touch with Gen Z concerns and are adapting to their needs. 

  • Acknowledge choices higher in the funnel. It’s no longer which college, but IF college.  That means challenging traditional journeys in your marketing planning and expanding profiles of the typical student, as you are likely already doing, but it also means including an undercurrent of respect for the autonomy of the prospective student’s decision-making process. Recognize that Gen Z is comfortable learning from nontraditional sources (such as formal and informal training online) and has a wider consideration set for how to further knowledge. Small tweaks in wording from “when you make your college selection” to “if you choose to join us for your education journey” can show you are attuned to today’s realities. 
  • Communicate features that avoid lost dollars. Emphasize features such as the ease of changing majors or co-ops to make money, which provide students who do not yet know their career path with some breathing room to find their passion. If you offer a layer of extra support at your university, like academic and overall advisors, educating Zers on these resources can ease anxiety around potential failure. These are authentic ways to lower Gen Z anxiety and build trust by providing a solution to a true pain point. 
  • Complement rational arguments with emotional imagery and testimonials that communicate the intangibles only possible with college experience. Particularly following the social isolation of COVID, Gen Zers crave social connection and exploration. For many, they’ve heard stories from old family and friends about the friendships and fun that the college experience tends to facilitate, so a reminder of that positive is completely on the table. 
  • Position higher education as an investment in self (through others). While Zers universally are reluctant to let go of hard-earned dollars, they are willing to spend on areas that promote self-care, especially if it can be linked to promoting their mental health and wellness. At the same time, beware of assumptions that self care means isolated reflection. The college setting should be positioned as a place where you can find yourself BY connecting with a diverse group of others (students and faculty) in a comfortable space. Self care through social care. 
  • Consider altering your product to reduce costs/increase value. In the end, some Zers are unlikely to budge unless there is a change in market value. Lydia, 22, a nursing student, offers this advice: “I feel like college is an unnecessary step sometimes for people who are pursuing graduate degrees… I think I could have learned the information to go to graduate school without spending so much money and so much time.“ Universities and colleges who break out from the traditional cost structure will find an eager market with this generation.

While the higher ed landscape is clearly changing with Gen Z, the good news is that the headlines about Gen Z don’t do justice to their desires. With an audience that wants your product, and has clearly identified barriers (anxiety, cost) standing in the way, creative marketing and messaging to address pain points without losing sight of the underlying want (to have an enriching experience with strong returns) will be most likely to succeed. 

To learn more about the focus group and Gatesman’s larger Gen Z Reframed research study, feel free to reach out to me at

*Focus group included 13 Gen Zers between the ages of 17 and 26, primarily from the mid-Atlantic and midwest regions, including a mix of those who were attending college and those who were not.