When Millennials were in high school, getting into the best college was paramount in their lives. As the largest generation on record, they knew there would be stiff competition to be accepted into their dream university. For many, the entirety of their secondary education was devoted to achieving this goal. This caused them plenty of stress in the build-up, and, in the end, their reward for achieving the desired result was a heap of student debt—which rose to more than $35,000 for the class of 2015. As Gen Zs have replaced Gen Y in high schools, their approach to college admissions and their perception of the value of a degree are shifting dramatically from that of previous generations.
First, while it has gained plenty of media attention, the “no college” movement may be overhyped. Gen Zs still think that college is important, and they plan to enroll—a recent focus group of teen Zs told us emphatically that not only do they all expect to attend college but also that everyone their age that they know is planning to get a degree. Still, our report finds that 21% of 13- to 17-year-olds are unsure if college is worth the money. What’s more, only 25% believe a college degree is necessary for success. Yet, despite their skepticism around the value of college, they still see it as a part of their future plans.
This paradox is partly explained in the change in young people’s perception of the name of the university on a degree rather than the degree itself. Whereas Ys felt they had to attend the best (and often most expensive) school, Zs are satisfied to attend a less prestigious but reputable school. While Ys believed the name of the university on their degree would open doors, Zs believe their experience and hustle will do the trick. Aiding this trend of “settling” for a good school is the perception that there are more good schools out there that can fulfill the task of educating them and granting them a degree. In addition, gone are the days when U.S. News and World Report’s “50 Best Colleges” issue was the only authority on college quality. Today, Zs can research the overall atmosphere of a school, explore the pros and cons of the specific degree program they’re interested in, get to know more about the professors with whom they would study, and even connect casually with students who are currently on campus.
The combination of these circumstances has led to a new set of criteria that students are using to gauge the institutions best suited to prepare them for the future. They don’t believe they are trading down, but rather making smarter decisions about the money they will spend on school. Having seen Ys weighed down with education debt, they are choosing the less expensive, lesser-in-name, but equally adequate university. Consider Ronald Nelson, a student who turned down every Ivy League school to attend the University of Alabama on a full scholarship. Instead, he and his family can save and invest their money for his future higher education costs, as he plans to attend medical school.
This type of practical decision-making is happening among teens across the country, and not only when it comes to college. They are being thoughtful about their money and what parting with it now can mean for their future. To that end, they are opting for quality items that will last over those with brand names. And the times that they are choosing pricier branded items, it’s with the knowledge that when they tire of the object, they can resell it to recoup some of the money they spent (if not turn a profit). On the bright side for brands, as Zs and their parents are saving money by spending less on education, it frees up funds for other purchases—though, ultimately, they will apply the same pragmatic approach to spending decisions across categories.