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How Community Colleges Are Adapting to the Needs of Gen Z

Just when higher education began to get a grasp on the changing needs of millennials, a new generation went to college. Generation Z (or Gen Z) — defined as those born after 1997 — came into the world as the oldest millennials came into adulthood, and have been guided by technology for their entire educational careers. They were “born digital,” and it has shaped everything about how they live, work, and play. In particular it has shaped their views and expectations surrounding education. 

Pearson, one of the leading educational research institutions, has noted a hard shift in learning patterns among Gen Z. Niche spoke with Pearson’s Chief Corporate Affairs Officer Deirdre Latour about the shift their research has highlighted. Pearson’s most recent reports have shown that Gen Z still values education, but wants varied avenues to achieve that. According to Latour, half of GenZ believes that you can do “okay” without a degree.

A Personalized Experience

“Gen Z lives in an online world and they expect all of their consumer experiences to be digital, personalized and highly engaging. Their education shouldn’t be different. They are taking control of their learning with a DIY mindset: mixing and matching what they can afford in their education and what works for them.” Mixing vocational training with short courses, self teaching and highly personalized educational experiences are what this generation is demanding. 

Mark Mitsui, president of Portland Community College, has implemented many changes to address the shift in student culture. “Gen Z is so diverse. They have such an openness and interest in diversity, equity and inclusion. They are also more tech savvy and social media savvy — they want to be more engaged and it has really energized our college.”

Why Community College or Trade School Might Be Better Than a 4-Year Degree

A Need for Security

Mitsui has seen a shift in how the student body is achieving their goals, as well. “What we’ve noticed, not just with Gen Z but also millennials, is a growing amount of housing and food insecurity among younger students. It has a lot to do with growing income inequality and the rising cost of living in Portland.” Particularly for students who cannot live with their parents, or who are not yet 24 and can apply for student aid independent of their parents, they are taking longer to finish their degrees. The college supports students with financial insecurity through their Pathways to Opportunity program, aimed at leveling the college playing field.   

Portland Community College is also exploring arenas to partner with public resources to provide affordable housing options for students as real estate prices continue to skyrocket in Portland. “The city passed a bond [fund] dedicated to affordable housing, and we do have some land.” Mitsui and his staff hope to weave together a housing safety net for students, possibly also incorporating funds from HUD housing choice vouchers, more commonly known as Section 8. The college is still just exploring these options, but Mitsui sees financial insecurity in Gen Z college students as a continued area of concern.  

The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, which studies economic trends among current college students, estimates food insecurity among college students around 45% and housing insecurity at 56%. 17% of college students had been homeless in the past year. 

The Debt Factor

Kelli Maxwell, associate provost for academic affairs at the Community College of Allegheny County in the Pittsburgh area, has seen similar trends to Mitsui. As a former dean of students, she has been able to personally observe just how opinions of education are changing for Gen Z. “Our population is increasing, but people are more likely to come for a semester or two, then leave to work, and come back. It seems that flexibility to come and go as they need to, with this eye towards particular skills — get that next step in your career — has this new generation in and out of the education system.”

She sees more and more students being very conscious of debt, after many have seen how it negatively affected their parents. Gen Z students are wary of the crushing debt that their millennial counterparts have been left with. Pursuing school part time or through online modes allows them to achieve a degree without incurring the same debt. For a generation that is even less financially stable than the millennials before them, their caution around college debt is understandable for school administrators. 

More and more CCAC students are pursuing a trade or paid apprenticeship, with an eye on quickly getting out into the workforce rather than accumulating that feared debt. The launch of their virtual campus, condensed 8 week classes, and credentialing programs all fit the flexibility that Gen Z is looking for. Maxwell’s team has also begun to look for ways to help students struggling financially, as Portland Community College is. Each of Allegheny County’s campuses has a food pantry, and the college works with KEYS to provide job training requirements to students receiving SNAP and TANF. 

The Bottom Line

With the shift to virtual classes, trades and apprenticeships as well as moving in and out of their education over a period of years, the biggest shift for community colleges educating Gen Z will be how to keep them connected to the school even if they are not physically present. Maxwell sees this change occurring already, and knows her school must seek connection through this changing education model. “Its critical to connect to them virtually. We are trying to build all kinds of engagement experiences for students who are not physically here — we are so very aware of the need to do so.” Pearson’s study shows that Gen Z has a growing ambivalence for the traditional paths those before them took, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a thriving zeal for knowledge and education.

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Author: Meg St-Esprit

Meg St-Esprit, M. Ed. is a freelance journalist based in Pittsburgh, PA. She is a mom to four children via adoption, and enjoys writing about issues related to parenting, education, and community development. Follow Meg on Twitter , and Facebook , and check out her website