Gen Z’s Views on College Decline During Pandemic

In a recent survey of high school students, 29% said that the pandemic’s financial impact lessened their likelihood of pursuing a degree.
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  • A new survey of high school students by ECMC Group found just 48% were likely to pursue a four-year degree.
  • Half of respondents said they think success is attainable without a four-year degree.
  • Still, 86% reported feeling pressured to pursue a 4-year college degree.

The COVID-19 pandemic has completely changed how Generation Z thinks about college, according to a new survey.

The survey conducted by ECMC Group, a nonprofit organization focused on education, found that between May 2020 and September 2021, students’ views on higher education changed dramatically. In addition to reporting increased uncertainty about attending college, fewer students viewed a college degree — or any postsecondary education — as necessary. Just 48% of high school teens said they were likely to pursue a four-year degree.

The COVID-19 pandemic spurred much of this change in opinion among students. Nearly one-third of survey respondents (29%) reported that the pandemic’s financial impact has lessened their likelihood of pursuing a four-year degree. Meanwhile, 27% of students say they have already changed or will change their post-high school education plans due to COVID-19.

Overall, a large majority of students (86%) reported feeling pressure to pursue a four-year degree. Sixty-two percent reported still wanting to forge their own educational path.

According to this survey, many high school teens don’t believe college is worth the time and money it requires. In fact, half of respondents think success is attainable without a four-year degree.

College Costs Among Students’ Top Concerns

When it comes to college, high school students' top concern is cost. Two-thirds of survey respondents said the tuition and student loans are important factors in their future education choices. Sixty-four percent of respondents said making college less expensive is the number one thing they’d want to change about higher education.

This data mirrors earlier findings by BestColleges on the importance of cost when considering where to attend school. When surveyed over summer, Americans over the age of 18 valued the cost of higher education over factors like prestige and academic rigor. Respondents said the second most-important factor was the percentage of graduates employed in their field soon after graduation.

As concerns about higher education's affordability continue to mount, it’s clear that teens are aware and skeptical of the financial impacts of four-year degrees.

Gen Z Open to Nontraditional Education Programs

More than half of ECMC Group's survey respondents reported interest in and openness to educational pathways other than four-year degrees. Most did not understand what career and technical education (CTE) was. Even so, "most of the career paths they'd like to follow have CTE on-ramps," according to ECMC Group.

Fifty-seven percent of students said they’d be more likely to attend a CTE college if it was tuition free. Fifty-eight percent said they believe a skills-based education makes sense in today’s world. "Skills-based" encompasses skilled trades, nursing, and STEM.

Nontraditional and skills-based postsecondary programs have become significantly more popular over the last few years. Strada Center for Education and Consumer Insights reports that graduates with both a degree and a nondegree credential see more value in their education than those with just a degree.

ECMC Group found that half of high school students knew someone who had completed a CTE program. Of those learners, 47% said knowing a CTE graduate had positively impacted their own opinion on CTE programs. Forty-four percent said they were more open to pursuing such programs themselves.

Gen Z Wants Government, Employers To Make College Affordable

Regardless of how Gen Z students pursue further education after high school, they expect both the government and their future employers to play a role. Nearly half (47%) said they believe the government should provide additional money to pay off student loans. More than one-third (39%) said the government should subsidize or pay for college.

Over one-third of students believe companies should offer formal education to their employees and help pay off student loans.

Teens also want to know that their chosen educational pathway will directly connect them to job prospects upon graduation. Forty percent believe building connections for a future career is one of the most important parts of the higher ed experience. As of September 2021, 62% of students already had a career in mind.

There’s no telling what educational decisions many of these students will make, especially once they enter a post-pandemic world. But for now, Gen Z is confident in their ability to attain success without a traditional postsecondary education. What these students want now is to know about the education options available to them.