Gen Z leery of 4-year degree paths, surveys show

How intent are high school students on pursuing four-year degrees?

According to a new report from Minnesota-based ECMC Group and VICE Media, only 25% of the 3,000 Generation Z teenagers they surveyed believe the traditional college model is the only pathway to getting a good job.

Only about half of those polled said they are likely to pursue a four-year plan. With their options increasing and with uneasiness over their own financial futures growing because of the pandemic, this next wave of education seekers is poised to have vastly different outcomes than their predecessors.

“High school students and their families have faced a great deal of change in their lives over the past year, which is translating into uncertainty as they look to their career paths,” said Jeremy Wheaton, president and CEO of ECMC Group, a nonprofit dedicated to student success. “While this shift in mindset isn’t surprising, it is up to us as leaders and mentors to educate learners about their future opportunities, which includes raising awareness about the variety of postsecondary options that are available.”

Those options include career and technical education and apprenticeships but also include a more staggered approach to education and lifelong learning that could help them better position themselves for jobs in a digital economy and avoid potentially big costs of a four-year degree.

According to the ECMC surveys – three that were done from just before the pandemic until this January – the top concerns of Gen Z students when considering their educational futures were costs (50% are wary of having too much debt) and landing a solid job (44%). Another 44% fear they will not have the skills they need once hired.

Those likely are not much different from previous generations. However, Gen Z seems more poised to act on its convictions, having seen the effects of the pandemic on families and having seen the debt accumulated by Millennials who chose those traditional paths. Gen Z also knows it will be presented with new opportunities to get education in smaller bites, as companies press for more digitally skilled workers and institutions try to meet those needs and the wishes of the next wave of talent.

“While the insights we uncovered illustrate a high level of indecision, they also demonstrate that today’s teens are using a critical eye when it comes to analyzing their options and charting their future course,” said Wheaton. “We must take this opportunity to hear their concerns and provide pathways that will meet their educational needs now and into the future.”

The pandemic’s impact cannot be understated. While more than 50% of students surveyed say they are worried about their future, a staggering one third say the financial fallout of the pandemic has made it unlikely they will pursue a four-year degree.

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center provided perhaps a glimpse of that in its reporting on freshman enrollment during the past year, as numbers tumbled some 13% from 2019. In the state of California, it was more than 20%. There is deep concern that underserved students and those from low-income areas will simply choose to go straight into jobs, if they can find them. A quarter of students in the ECMC surveys say they probably won’t “pursue any education beyond high school.”

So what can be done to solve these problems? Gen Z students surveyed said that they want policymakers and business leaders to be much more involved in providing financial assistance. Some 40-50% believe the government should either offer additional money to pay off student loans, pay off debt or pay for college altogether. More than one third say companies themselves should not only provide education for students but pay for their loans as well.

Colleges and universities have a tough task swaying the mindset of Gen Z, beyond simply incentivizing students through the lowering of tuition and increasing financial aid. 

The College Marketing Group offers some excellent tips on reaching the next generation and showing the value that an education – and yes, even a four-year path – can provide.

  • CMG leaders say it is important to find students on social media channels and connect with them there. They say videos are the way to get through to Gen Z, which makes sense given the amount of video content they consume.


  • Quick sound bytes with captioning expressing the value of the college right away in those videos is important. And they say “be real” … in other words, Gen Z can easily see through messages that aren’t genuine or are too general.


  • Put current students in front of the camera. Gen Z students are more likely to be able to relate to them.


  • Be transparent about costs, about the mission of your school, and how that fits with them and their generation. Tout what your college and university can do to prepare them for the next wave of jobs. And again, avoid generalizations when doing so. 

Source: University Business, February 24, 2021, Chris Burt

Zoomers Aren’t Waiting for a College Degree to Secure Their Financial Future

Americans born between 1997 and 2012, otherwise known as Gen Z or zoomers, appear to be in a hurry to make money. 

After witnessing millennials drown in debt over college, 67% of zoomers say their top concern is being able to afford higher education. Furthermore, one in every five zoomers say they want to avoid debt at all costs. Following a frightening 2020, in which members of Gen Z were the most impacted mentally and emotionally, the fear of being caught in another crisis without enough cash in hand may have helped them look at money with a new set of eyes. 

According to a recent Barclays survey, young Americans are not wasting their time by using market opportunities as they arise. But in this thirst for making short-term profits, they are also picking up bad investing habits. As some learn the trade and get solid investment strategies down, however, some make a name for themselves as “finfluencers.”

Against all odds, zoomers are becoming more financially savvy than millennials, even among those who are open about their losses. 

Playing the Short Game

Ignoring established investment experts, young investors are trading often and taking bigger risks than their older counterparts. They are also keeping a close eye on their portfolios, hoping to be able to jump on opportunities as they present themselves. 

According to Barclays, 21% of Gen Z investors are in the game to take advantage of the market whereas at least 16% say they are in it for the short-term gains, trying to “play the market” to get rich quick.

Investing more speculatively and taking higher risks for bigger gains, young investors are ignoring advice from established sources. To some, that means a frenetic investing mode that isn’t here to stay, with 49% of Gen Z investors telling Barclays they are playing on investing money for just 2 to 5 years. 

But what happens to those who do well?

Influencers Share Their Magic

Following the pandemic, an increase in retail trading has given rise to a new type of influencer, the “finfluencers,” or financial influencers who use TikTok to share tips on how to make the best out of their money. 

While not financial professionals, these influencers use what they have learned to help guide others into short- and long-term success. Some of these trend setters are also Gen Z investors. 

Miss Teen Crypto, an 18-year-old investor who became a major adherent of bitcoin, is one of them. She urges young Americans like herself to explore everything cryptocurrencies can provide. Instead of simply being in it for money, she told reporters, her goal is to help educate others to take advantage of the technology. With 47% of Gen Z investors holding cryptocurrency, it is clear that her message is getting through. 

But investing alone isn’t the only thing that makes zoomers stand out. They are also more likely to take the do-it-yourself approach to many of their needs, which helps them save more in the long run. Having more pocket money to spend ends up becoming a good way to test out their investing skills, and a good way to stay financially aware.

Unlike millennials, zoomers feel the pressure to stay afloat and not fall into debt. Apparently, they are acting accordingly—a lesson they probably picked up by watching millennials struggle despite being college educated. 

Will Zoomers Get America Back in Shape?

Following the decades of heavy-handed federal intervention in the markets, which made virtually everything from housing to education prohibitively expensive, could zoomers end up forcing politicians to think twice before ramping up interventionist practices?

It depends.

Long before the pandemic, zoomers had already learned to love the government. Blind trust in bureaucracy made them and millennials “dystopian socialists” who were quick to defend welfarism and federal intrusion in private matters. During the pandemic, however, many began to question their blind trust in government. The fact that many are looking for their own way of making money early is a good way to tell that not all young Americans believe Uncle Sam will be there for them. 

It will be a matter of time before we know what zoomers’ impact on politics will look like. Until then, we can at least rest assured Gen Z won’t be sitting around waiting for a government check to get things done.

Source: Independent Institute, July 13, 2021, Chloe Anagnos