Enrollment Blog

What Gen Z wants from college search, in their own words

by Emily Bauer

Millennials have been stamped with many generational stereotypes: demanding, outspoken, lazy, powerful—to name just a few. But with birth dates starting in 1996, it is now Generation Z that fills campuses of colleges nationwide. What are the hallmarks of this population and are there implications for enrollment leaders?

To learn first-hand how Gen Z thinks about the college journey, we conducted a series of interviews this summer with eight, Gen Z, EAB interns. We asked about their experience applying to college—how they found, considered, and ultimately decided on a school. We also asked them what mattered about communication, who or what influenced their decisions most, and what role the digital world played in their experience.

Their answers provide practical and important insights for modern enrollment marketing teams.



Know thyself, know thy student

Gen Z has a very strong sense of identity and self. Not only because they have been carefully cultivating their digital selves (often since their early teens) across multiple platforms, but also because they are fundamentally pragmatic. Having lived through defining worldly events since a young age—9/11, multiple wars, the Great Recession—they are grounded. The Human Project Survey, by CEB's Iconoculture Consumer Insights work says they are "…masters of platform, more self-aware, success-driven, socially responsible and more globally minded than any generation before them." They come to us with a well-defined sense of self, and a well-defined vision of the future they want to create.

What does this mean for enrollment teams?

In simple terms, it means that a college has to have a deep understanding of its institutional brand, how it is perceived by its target students, and how it can help students see themselves in that brand. Explained one intern,

"I wanted to know that they were looking for me, that I represented their ideal college student in some way."

Gen Z: Digital natives—and digital critics

Both millennials and Gen Z have been accused of being intractably distracted: jumping from app to app, demanding to be "met where they are." Research now shows that these behaviors are less of an indication of distraction or an unwillingness to focus, but more a reflection of an extremely sophisticated filtering mechanism. According to a 2015 Fast Company article, "Gen Z have a carefully tuned radar for being sold to and a limited amount of time and energy to spend assessing whether something’s worth their time. Getting past these filters, and winning Gen Z’s attention, will mean providing them with engaging and immediately beneficial experiences. One-way messaging alone will likely get drowned out in the noise."

In conversations with our interns, we heard this desire for "immediately beneficial experiences" in discussions about access to information, the application process, and in particular about college websites. Said one intern, Morgan,

"If I was stuck on the home page of the college website and it didn’t look like they put a lot of care and attention into the page, I wondered…would they put a lot of care and attention into me?"

Let's get real: The importance of authenticity

Gen Z has never known a world other than the 24/7 information-dense one we live in. The result is they immediately, and almost unconsciously, assess what is real, what is interesting, and where they will engage (or not). This is true of how they interact with the college search process as well.

For enrollment teams, this means that personalization and authenticity matter more than ever. Generation Z wants to be wanted (who doesn’t?!) and wants to have transparent and honest interactions as they make commitments and buying decisions. From our interviews it was clear that the more students felt a college was reaching out to them because of their unique talents and unique interests, the more likely they were to consider that school. They want to be seen for who they really are and they want to see how the college can help them become their best future self. As one intern said,

"My advice to colleges is make sure it is authentic. Make sure the student knows you want THEM. There is no greater feeling."

Unoriginal and boilerplate positioning and content need not apply.

Modern enrollment marketing

Enrollment leaders are already facing difficult and sustained challenges—declining enrollments and yield volatility are among some of the most pressing. Fold in the need to be digitally savvy, responsive, and highly personal to evolve into a modern enrollment marketing function—and the job can feel a bit overwhelming. EAB Enrollment Services has proven tactics to help—including the latest digital enhancements real-world tested in our Innovations Lab, and our new Institution Perception and Awareness Study, a market intelligence assessment that provides comprehensive insight about how students in your target inquiry pool perceive your brand.

With expectations for personalization and authenticity in communication at an all-time high, our advice to enrollment leaders is continue to look at the college journey from the eyes of your students (and prospective students). They may have high expectations, but as we learned, they are also opinionated, purpose driven, and happy to provide clear and tactical guidance to you as you reinvent your enrollment strategy.

Read what 5,580 students shared about their communication preferences

Enrollment teams work hard to perfect their messages for prospective students. But those messages can get lost in today’s maze of communication channels. Explore our student survey results to learn how to strategically position and time your messages across multiple channels.

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