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Generation Option-Obsessed

doors symbolizing options

Applications are up, enrollment is down, and uncertainty is in the air

While the numbers aren’t settled for the May 1st “Decision Day” deadline, the January deadline numbers reflect a considerable increase in applications to US higher ed institutions. They spiked 21.3 percent from the pre-pandemic count as of March 15th, according to findings by the Common Application (the Common App).

Yet, as of fall 2021, total US higher ed enrollment has declined by 5.1 percent (or by 938,000) students since fall 2019. These disproportionate numbers could leave many an analyst scratching their head, but we’re no strangers to the disruptive behaviors of Gen Z.

Students are expanding rather than narrowing their prospects. The dynamics of the decision-making journey are changing, and the new mentality seems to be “Why not apply?” That said, are too many options killing the quest for a higher education experience in the US?

The who, where, and why

Let’s get to the breakdown. The Common App gives us a closer look at the demographics that set the scene for this analysis.

Who’s responsible for the surge? There have been relatively large increases in underrepresented minority (URM) and first-generation applicants, for starters. URM applicants increased by 18 percent since before the pandemic—greater than the 13 percent increase in non-URM applicants. First-gen applicants increased by 22 percent, at twice the rate of continuing-gen applicants, over the same period.

Where are these students applying? As one may expect, big-name schools are leading the charge. UCLA saw an increase in fall 2022 applications from all demographics but transfer students—for California residents, non-residents, and especially low-income students (at 19 percent).

At Yale University, applications from all locations, international and domestic, are up 42 percent from the total the university received in 2020. “The shift to test-optional has definitely played a role in this increase,” commented Jeremiah Quinlan, Yale’s dean of undergraduate admissions and financial aid.

More Common App data supports this sentiment. Members requiring test scores decreased further in 2021–22 to five percent after reaching an unprecedented low of 11 percent in 2020–21.

To properly explain the broader trend of rising applications, we have to answer a few questions. Are students applying to more schools, are more students applying, or are both true?

Comparing across the pond

The Common App reported that the average number of applications per student increased slightly between the 2019–20 and 2021–22 cycles, up 6 percent from 5.3 to 5.62. It’s not insignificant, but it’s not a stat that packs a punch.

In the UK, there’s a UCAS (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, or the UK equivalent of the Common App) mandate that students can apply to up to 5 universities each.

As for the rationale behind the limit, UCAS Head of Customer Contact Courteney Sheppard says, “Students can initially apply to up to five choices, which encourages research into potential courses so that applications can be focused and students can demonstrate their desire to study a particular subject, yet at the same time it allows them to apply for a range of courses… Having five initial choices is agreed between universities and colleges to allow flexibility in students’ applications, and also equal opportunities for everyone.”

The maximum forces UK students to carefully vet their options. Interestingly enough, US students seem to be doing this on their own accord, given that they’re applying to nearly the same number of schools despite their freedom to choose otherwise. The process looks different, but the results are roughly the same.

To paint a full picture of the landscape, there has also been a 14.4 percent increase in distinct first-year applicants in the US from the 2019–2020 cycle to date. Indeed, “more is more” appears to be the emerging theme.

Alternate paths to success

The UK has experienced growth in applicants from 2020 to 2021 as well, though at a lesser scale than the US. So the UK comparison offers us further context, especially given that they’re strikingly on par with the US in terms of their national enrollment decline. So if students are applying deliberately, what’s with the hesitancy around choosing higher ed?

We may point to the rise of the gig economy and the consideration of alternative avenues to work. According to the banking app Lili, 50 percent of Gen Z undertook freelance work in 2021. The autonomy and flexibility of this work style have been embraced across generational cohorts, but Gen Z appears to have taken it on with the most ease.

Millennials make up the largest pool of total gig workers using the online staffing platform Wonolo (53 percent), but Gen Z is quickly climbing the ladder as the only generation that has seen their percentage of overall jobs completed increase between 2019 and 2021.

However, this doesn’t mean that they’re all in either. Half of Gen Z express concern about the lack of stability (47 percent) and inconsistent pay (46 percent) that come as a result of gig work. Unpredictability is the name of their game, and whether or not institutions can direct students their way will depend on one maneuver.

Where to play and how to win

So the story goes, Gen Zers have millions of options at their fingertips, spanning from products to services to higher ed institutions or other alternatives. And more and more students are choosing to exercise their ability to explore these options.

And influential evidence is just as readily accessible online. So, the dilemma for many marketers has become: how do we engage Gen Z? How can we infiltrate their 8-second attention span? One solution: invade the spaces where they congregate.

76 percent of internet users participate in an online community, according to one study. 78 percent ask questions in these environments, and 70 percent partake in providing solutions.

People utilize online communities for a variety of reasons—the root cause being the need for social interaction. And when it comes to decision-making, mulling over the many different choices that are available to us, we like to rely on social proof to come to a conclusion.

68 percent of Gen Z read three or more reviews before buying something for the first time with their own money. They crowdsource opinions from those who have read the book, eaten at the restaurant, or lived on the campus. What reviewers thought informs what they think, consciously and even subconsciously.

Learning about personal experiences means gaining invaluable perspective, and dubious assumptions shouldn’t be the norm when making major life decisions. As for marketing tactics that make waves, Gen Z is more impressionable than we think. Peer insights could put higher ed on the table, and even one offer letter at the top of the pile.

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