Why Generation Z is Passing on College

I just spent two evenings with two audiences of high school and college students. As I asked them questions about their future, I heard them say things like:

  • I am not so sure I will finish college.
  • I plan to take a gap year and if it goes well, I may just launch my career.
  • I watch YouTube videos, so I don’t really rely on coaches for my sport.
  • I don’t think I need more school to succeed in the career I’m choosing.
  • I plan to be an entrepreneur so I am getting started now, while I’m in school.

While these statements represent a variety of subjects, there is a pattern to them. Can you see it?

Each of these students feel very empowered by the access they have to the world around them. As a result, they feel less dependent on adults to get them ready for the career they’ll choose to enter. Right or wrong, that’s their perception.

And for them, perception is reality.

The Lens That Generation Z Looks Through

For many years, technical and trade schools (vocational schools) have been less popular. Most Millennials chose to attend a four-year university and get an advanced degree for any job ahead. After all, it meant more money. But as many discovered, the market was volatile as they graduated, and some couldn’t find a job that matched their degree or their expectations. They ended up taking a job that did not require a bachelor’s degree—yet they still had a $30,000 tuition debt to pay back.

Generation Z is hoping to avoid this reality.

Consequently, Career and Technical Education (CTE) has become attractive again:

  • These schools cost less.
  • These schools get right to the subject.
  • These schools offer practical training experiences.
  • These schools lead to jobs that pay well since those jobs are rare.

So, we see a resurgence in those entering occupations from electrical engineering to cosmetology to welding to construction. For a long time, those jobs felt too “blue- collar” to Millennials; they wanted white-collar jobs and that meant a liberal arts degree. Today, however, the debt they accumulated feels…constrictive. So even though Generation Z believes they must choose between “debt” and “stigma,” the stigma of a blue-collar job is less than the stigma of huge debt. In short, they may say:

“I’d rather have a less prestigious job than owe tons of money.”

This is a clear shift from the Millennial population fifteen years ago. The fact is, a growing number of teens and young adults no longer believe that a college classroom education is a good proxy for genuine career preparation. For example, if a student can code, an employer who needs that can see proof of their ability and may not ask for proof of a college degree. Fewer employers are asking the education question in deference to the practical question. Believe it or not, fewer churches are asking if a person has a theological degree to get hired there. Pragmatism rules the day.

What I Learned in Graduate School

Several of my professors told their students that graduate school is more focused, and consequently, may be wasted on students who have no “work experience.” If a 22-year-old college graduate went straight to grad school, they likely wouldn’t know the right questions to ask or the issues they’ll face, since they’d only experienced a classroom, not a workroom. One graduate professor said he wished he could eliminate all “pre-service” learning—meaning you could only attend his classes if you’d entered the working world for two years.

As I reflect, the smartest decision I made during all of my post-secondary education experiences was to get a job in the very field I was studying. It helped me think more practically; it helped me envision more clearly; it gave me the right questions to ask; it helped me learn and apply my education more rapidly. I was able to instantly practice what we’d discussed in the classroom.

So What’s a Teacher to Do?

Your students are like me. We learn on a “need to know” basis. When we’re applying concepts in real time, it creates the need to know. We learn things “just in time” not “just in case.” We learn by doing. So—if you’re teaching Generation Z, I suggest you:

  1. Insert practical experiences into the instruction, making it “interrupted in-service learning.” Debrief what can be learned after each experience.
  2. Always summarize the big ideas you’re teaching and how they can be applied in a career or in the marketplace.
  3. End every class with a reflection time, where both planned and spontaneous experiences become teachable moments.

Today, I see so many young professionals reviewing their taxes from last year. Their very first job was after college and they had no idea what they wanted to do. They are getting four W-2 forms, sent to three different addresses. It’s the gig economy. What if we helped students onto a path that didn’t zig-zag quite as much? What if work and education were married all through their teen and young adult years?

This way—their education continues.

Order Now: Marching Off the Map
Inspire Students to Navigate a Brand New World

Leading today’s students often feels like being in a new country with old maps that don’t work. Understanding and connecting with the generation in this land is often times frustrating and draining. We need new strategies on how to march off our old maps and create new ones.

From decades of research and hands-on experience, Dr. Tim Elmore and Andrew McPeak collate their conclusions into one resource that helps adults:

  • Inspire students to own their education and their future
  • Lead students from an attitude of apathy to one of passion through metacognition
  • Enable students to push back from the constant digital distractions and practice mindfulness
  • Raise kids who make healthy progress, both emotionally and mentally, through their teenage years
  • Give students the tools to handle the complexities of an ever-changing world
  • Understand and practically apply the latest research on Generation Z

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Why Generation Z is Passing on College