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Unwrapping Gen Z’s Aversion To Higher Education

empty university lecture hall

Now two years in, no demographic has felt the social strain of the pandemic to the extent of Gen Z. Millennials have expressed frustration at losing what some deem the “last” of their youth in addition to financial woes, and it’s too soon to tell what the impact will be on Gen A—those born since 2012.

Stuck in the middle, between a rock and a hard place, that leaves today’s youngest adults—the spectrum comprising college-aged folks facing a prolonged bout of isolation during what’s meant to be the most interactive era of their lives.

Just under half (46%) of Gen Zers surveyed in a poll by the MTV Entertainment Group with the Associated Press said that the pandemic made pursuing education or a career more difficult compared with 36% of millennials. That said, it comes as no surprise that US higher education enrollment rates have toppled in recent times. Total undergraduate enrollment has dropped 6.6% since the fall of 2019 with a 3.1% decline from fall 2020 to fall 2021.

Being dubbed “True Gen” by McKinsey, this cohort is more skeptical than any before and weighs the current risks associated with attending college carefully. They harbor a distrust of institutions that’s reared its head with the shift of student sentiment, as evidenced by a few key points of contention that are worth exploring.

Should their perceptions of the truth lead them astray from the path to higher education, the damage to the sector may be severe. The question thereby stands: is there longevity to this trend?

The uptake of virtual learning

An all too obvious culprit of these changing attitudes is virtual learning. It’s at the forefront of every mind when it comes to the current state of curricula.

“For many who had planned to attend a four-year college or university, this didn’t seem worth the cost. At least, not at the time. Delaying college, as we saw from several applicants for the fall 2020 cohort, seemed a prudent choice. A choice that for some was a luxury,” says Sr. Director of Admissions at Westmont College Mike McKinniss.

He continues, “For those for whom the cost of higher education was already a stretch—those at the bottom of the socioeconomic scale—they may not have felt that luxury.” Colleges and universities were delivering online classes without amending their tuition to reflect the discrepancies in their offering.

Decreased focus, lack of engagement, low motivation, and strained connection with peers and professors are also valid concerns with virtual. Schools and educators have adapted through trial and error to mitigate these issues as best they could, but they may never have all of the answers, and it will never be the right fit for some students.

From both a financial and experiential standpoint, plenty have voiced disinterest in paying for and participating in online schooling. But of course, opinions vary. In a poll by Wiley Education Services, more than one-third of students that take some online courses said they would consider a move to fully online learning. Furthermore, at least half said they’re so impressed by the value, implementation, and flexibility of remote learning that they are considering enrolling in those programs.

Phasing out of pandemic protocol, colleges and universities will likely continue to offer remote and hybrid learning options to cater to those students in favor. As for the students opposed, they should be appeased by the ability to get back into physical classrooms. Still, whether or not an uptick in enrollment will follow may depend more heavily on other factors.

The fall of the college degree

We can’t ignore that the dynamics of the current job market and its implications for students will play a huge role in the way that enrollment rates shake out. Projections should be highly dependent on how the achievement of a college degree impacts employability today.

“The job market this year reminds me of the job market for information technology and computer science majors in 1998 and 1999 when the internet was starting to boom,” says Steven Rothberg, founder and chief visionary officer of the job search site College Recruiter.

“There were far more job openings than there were candidates, so employers started to aggressively court students well before graduation and encourage them to drop out of school to work full-time for those employers. That seems to be happening again now, except across all occupational fields. Some employers are so desperate for talent and so unconcerned about the long-term well-being of their employees that they’re prompting students to drop out of school for a paycheck that may be nice for months or a few years, but not for the long-term careers of those employees.”

In November 2021, Glassdoor reported on companies that no longer hold degree requirements for certain positions: Google, Apple, and Penguin Random House made the list. Applicant pool size is no issue for these behemoths, so they aren’t prime examples of this particular approach to hiring, but they are a testament to an even more significant trend.

Experience is now the crux of any resume. Colleges and universities are the principal suppliers of knowledge, but that knowledge must be supplemented with the correct skill set for the chosen field of work, and those skills require application in a real-world context.

According to a 2021 survey by Cengage, one in three college graduates don’t believe their education helped them land their job, half don’t apply to entry-level jobs because they feel underqualified, and almost one in five don’t have needed job skills.

These findings are tough to swallow, but they aren’t a death sentence for higher education. They do, however, provide some critical insight into the needs of modern students that institutions can no longer afford to leave unaddressed. The relationship is give and take, and students deserve to feel like they’re getting what they came for.

The student debt crisis

Student loan debt is an ingrained component of the Millennial profile. The number of affected Americans within this cohort sat at 14.8 million as of October 2021, and they carry an average balance of $38,877 per borrower.

As for their successors, Gen Z is wary of this looming financial burden. For the 2021-22 academic year, CollegeBoard reported that average tuition and fees rose by 1.3% for students at two-year schools (to $3,800), 1.6% for in-state students at four-year public colleges (to $10,740) and 2.1% for students at four-year private institutions (to $38,070).

2021 - 2022 Average Tuition Fees - Gen Z

Truth-seekers that they are, their skepticism around the magnitude of this investment seems like a given. They’re well informed and have learned from the plight of those who came of age before them, granting them a more realistic perspective.

In 2007, less than one-third of Millennials (29%) who were most interested in attending a public institution anticipated taking out a student loan, but more than half (51%) ultimately did so. A decade later, 48% of incoming students believed that they’d require student loans, while only 41% actually did.

Chart comparing the anticipated and actual student loan borrowing among Millennials and incoming students. In 2007, 29% anticipated taking out loans, while 51% did. A decade later, 48% of incoming students expected to need loans, but only 41% did.

There is a glimmer of hope amongst CollegeBoard’s findings, though. After adjusting for the 3.9% inflation seen for the first eight months of 2020 and 2021, average tuition and fees actually declined.

To err on the side of optimism, this momentum could continue, and it could indeed galvanize a change in Gen Z’s behaviors. Regardless, both the direction and the reaction remain to be seen for now.


Is there a light at the end of this tunnel? Freshman enrollment stabilized this fall after last year’s dip: it’s up about 0.4% from 2020, but still 9.2% less (213,400 fewer freshman students) compared to pre-pandemic levels in fall 2019. Is a steeper incline to follow, or can we expect more of the same from incoming classes in a post-COVID climate?

Daniel Santos, CEO of the college admissions and career coaching company Prepory responds, “Yes, enrollment should pick back up. The sheer trends of COVID subsiding, costs of attendance becoming more accessible, and international students returning to the US system of higher education are all foreshadowing of growing enrollment figures at US colleges.”

Gen Z Aversion to Higher Ed

Even so, the decline could still retain significance within the broader contexts of the higher ed landscape and the future of work in the US. A missed opportunity to re-engage could dramatically affect Gen Z’s potential earnings and consequently, the national economy. Should fewer students enroll, not only will the sector suffer, but the average income amongst this demographic could sink, in turn affecting the national average. Mike McKinnis and Santos weigh in:

McKinniss says, “If there is a lost cohort [in the case of Gen Z’s inclination not to attend college], I imagine there will be an earnings gap. Yet this is also a generation that has adapted to a gig economy. Students entering college are often already comfortable taking whatever resources are at their disposal and leveraging them for profit, often in completely innovative ways. The generation, as a whole, will find its way.”

Santos comments, “The cultural and economic consequences of declining enrollment could be damning, like growing anti-intellectualism and a destabilizing decline in productivity growth… That said, I’m quite optimistic that we won’t be walking into a doomsday scenario. Higher education creates tremendous value for our society and will be around for a while.”

The stakes are high for Gen Z, and the effects of their decisions will be felt far and wide as they mature, ultimately influencing the generations that follow. The level of concern that we should have is up for interpretation, but one thing is certain.

They now reserve the right to blaze a trail that could depart from the traditional student journey. If they do, the onus will fall on institutions to make the adjustments that will reshape this path, thereby defining an era.

2023 – 2024 Academic Year Predictions

Enrollment for 2023 is generally down, but not by much, and after the sharp dip from COVID-19, could be on the rise slowly. Bachelor’s degree enrollment dropped by 2.2% from 2022, with the largest major impacted being English, which is down by 10.2%, and the largest increase at 4.8%  in psychology. For master’s degrees, enrollment is up by 5.2%, and doctoral degrees have increased by 3.6% according to’s recent college enrolment statistics.

University enrolment projections chart 2023

For online higher education institutions, a 7% increase in enrollment was observed from 2022 to 2023, with 68% of students as working adults or returning students who are taking classes part-time. The significant preference to take a course from home (39%) or have hybrid classes (30%) suggest that convenience and flexibility are an important factor in choosing and pursuing higher education. Especially with the rising costs of higher education and cost of living, it is not just a trend to offer students the capacity to attend to their job while also earning a degree.

In terms of demographics, all enrollment is down with some races more than others, with Native Americans enrollment down by 13%, Black Americans by 8.8%, White Americans down by 8.5%, Latin Americans down by 7.3%, and Asian Americans down by 4.8%. Enrollment seems to be down more for men than women, with men 18-20 years old down by 9.8% and 18-20 women down by 5.8%. While 18-20 year olds make up 40% of all undergraduates, and their cohort has lowered enrollment by 7.2%, adult students’ enrollment has increased by 2%.

The higher ed institutions that have the most enrollment are public four-year colleges with 7.5 million students, public two-year colleges and private four-year colleges have around 4 million students. The lowest numbers of enrollment are at private four-year colleges with only around 800,000 students.

An interesting note is that part-time students tend to be older than their full-time counterparts, with undergraduate full-time students’ average age being around 22.7 years, and part time undergraduate age being 27.5 years. For graduate enrollment, full-time students’ average age is 30.4, while part-time graduate students being 35.5.

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