Have traditional 4-year degrees lost their luster? Today’s Gen Z students seem to think so. New data suggests that young learners are focused on finding fast, cost-effective pathways to careers — not just a traditional “college experience.”
This significant shift requires community colleges to rethink their messaging and program offerings. The good news? Your institution has a prime opportunity to align with the goals of career-driven Gen Zers.
Here are a few key ways your school can make the most impact with today’s students.
1. Understand shifting perspectives
Today’s graduating seniors don’t share the millennial mindset. Even though 85% of young learners feel pressure to obtain a 4-year degree, they are far less likely to equate a bachelor’s degree with guaranteed career success. In fact, 50% believe they can achieve their career goals without one. And the number of Gen Z students considering a traditional 4-year institution has dropped 14% in just 2 years.
So what do they want instead? Real-world skills. Debt-free credentials. Accelerated career launching. A sense of purpose. This cohort craves efficient routes to financial security. Is your community college ready to lead the charge?
Data shows Gen Z wants a faster payoff from their higher education. They are seeking clear, efficient pathways that provide them with a sense of purpose. And while there are tons of amazing career and technical education paths out there, many students are still unaware of their options.
Connecting these students with all the resources available requires adapting your messaging to resonate with their needs and priorities, and showing them how their education will translate into the workplace. You can do this by sharing hands-on technical and trade programs that can translate into internships and apprenticeships. You can also help facilitate early connections between companies and industries and near graduates.
It’s also important to acknowledge barriers your future learners may encounter — whether they are financial, academic, or emotional. Mainstay partners with content experts and leading researchers to ensure our messages motivate students to persevere and prosper instead of becoming discouraged and frustrated. Showing compassion and validating students’ feelings builds trust and opens the door to deeper communication. The sooner you establish a relationship with your learners, the faster you can guide them towards their goals.
3. Address the issue of debt
Today’s students have witnessed their Millennial predecessors shackled with crippling student loan debt, and many of them are looking for a radically different path. The numbers speak for themselves — 47% of Gen Zers think shorter educational programs make more sense in today’s job market.
With the return on investment of a traditional degree in question, community colleges have the chance to usher this generation into promising, stable careers — minus the crushing debt. The key is providing the affordable, accelerated programs that today’s students desire, and crafting outreach that speaks to these pragmatic goals.
One way to do this is by lighting the pathways to scholarships and financial aid. Navigating the aid process can be one of the most confusing aspects of a student’s journey. Mainstay’s chatbots simplify the process by walking students through the next essential step as it arises. Our empathetic, proactive messages are proven to improve community college student outcomes, including boosting FAFSA completion rates.
Use timely nudges and reminders to:
- Remind students about FAFSA deadlines and next steps
- Share scholarship options and deadlines
- Offer cost-saving programs like dual enrollment
- Suggest payment plans and work/study programs
- Highlight affordable skills certificates and training programs
With the right outreach, community colleges can attract debt-wary Gen Zers seeking lower-cost pathways to prosperity.
4. Speak the language of Gen Z
Today’s students are digital natives fluent in social media, memes, and interactive online engagement. They expect your outreach efforts to align with these preferences. This means reaching students on their preferred channels (like texting), and streamlining any engagement to provide a seamless user experience.
The key is speaking Gen Z’s language at every touchpoint. Here are a few tips:
- Keep messages simple, yet personalized — avoid a generic one-size-fits-all approach
- Reformat text-heavy emails into scannable bullet points, bolded headers, and clear calls-to-action
- Incorporate explainer videos, gifs, and other visual media into your messages
- Try something new and see what resonates by soliciting real-time feedback
From your website design to email campaigns to social media, you need to tailor your approach to appeal to shorter attention spans. If you overload students with dense text and passive one-way messaging, you’ll risk students falling through the cracks.
5. Send the right message at the right time
As you shift your communication approach, you’ll need to support students who don’t realize they need help yet. That means sending nudges, reminders, or interactive questions. This differs from “reactive messaging” because you’re not waiting for the student to reach out. Proactive outreach lets you guide the conversation much more effectively than any automated response could.
In order to be proactive, you need to anticipate students’ challenges by tapping into their motivation, values, financial situation, and goals. You also need to consider the timeliness of academic or financial aid deadlines, upcoming events, and the steps they’ll need to take.
Of course, this knowledge won’t help students if the message doesn’t provide real value. You never want to inundate a busy student with unnecessary messages — so every conversation should be focused on their needs, goals, and where they are in the process.
After you provide support, it’s essential to follow up. Asking students if your support was helpful ensures you’re providing the guidance they need when they need it. At scale, you can use this information to offer more focused support and resources that align with students’ interests and aspirations.
Engage today’s career-focused learners
Gen Z is rapidly changing their expectations of higher ed. Today’s learners want efficient and cost-effective career pathways, not just degrees. Let’s connect to explore how Mainstay can help your community college attract and support the next generation of career-focused students.