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Generation Z and the future of higher education

Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun said Tuesday morning that the university’s new national survey of Generation Z sheds light on key areas where higher education must adapt to meet the needs of its customers—students—both now and in the future.

The survey results indicated that Generation Z is highly self-directed, demonstrated by a strong desire to work for themselves, study entrepreneurship, and design their own programs of study in college.

“What [Generation Z] is telling us is that they want to shape their own journey,” Aoun said at a higher education summit in Washington, D.C., held in conjunction with the release of the survey findings. “We need to move from a teacher-centered curriculum to a learner-centered curriculum.”

Northeastern and Marketplace from American Public Media organized the summit, which featured a panel discussion focusing on this next generation of students, workers, and innovators. Their conversation was illuminated by Northeastern’s new national poll of more than 1,000 teenagers (16 to 19 years old) who weighed in with their views of today’s most pressing issues of personal and societal importance, including their college plans, future financial outlook, and technology preferences.

Kai Ryssdal, host of Marketplace, moderated the discussion, which was titled “Innovation Imperative: Meet Generation Z” and held at the Newseum. Joining Aoun on the panel were Amy Scott, education correspondent for Marketplace; Bridget Terry Long, the Saris Professor of Education and Economics at the Harvard Graduate School of Education; and Keyaun Heydarian, a 17-year-old high school senior. Marketplace also reported on the new national survey.

Tuesday’s summit was the fourth in Northeastern’s Innovation Imperative thought-leadership series on the future of higher education and its relationship to the global economy. Previous summits have focused on the opinions of American adults, hiring-decision makers, and C-suite executives.

Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun said Tuesday morning that the university’s new national survey of Generation Z sheds light on key areas where higher education must adapt to meet the needs of its customers—students—both now and in the future. Charles Votaw Photography.

Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun said Tuesday morning that the university’s new national survey of Generation Z sheds light on key areas where higher education must adapt to meet the needs of its customers—students—both now and in the future. Charles Votaw Photography.

Among the new poll’s findings was that the majority (81 percent) believes obtaining a college degree is important to having a successful career. For her part, Scott noted that she encountered a similar sentiment among students she interviewed for a forthcoming documentary, Oyler, about a Cincinnati public school fighting poverty in its urban Appalachian neighborhood. Scott, who produced and directed the documentary in association with Marketplace, said students there had a “pragmatic approach to college,” viewing it as the best path to a good-paying job. She added that this school and many others are examining whether alternative paths, such as apprenticeships and technical programs, are a better fit for some students.

Ryssdal followed up on this point by asking Aoun whether Northeastern offers a product or an opportunity. Aoun responded by saying that Northeastern offers an opportunity, noting that “The shelf life for a product is very short.” He added that this opportunity includes entrepreneurship, which provides students with valuable experiences to not only succeed but also to learn how to fail, pick themselves up, and try again.

Long, an economist who specializes in studying education with a particular focus on the high school to college transition, said it can be challenging to convince students that failure is OK in a highly competitive environment with a “winner-take-all” mentality.

“It’s scary to fail,” Long said, but later echoed Aoun by noting that college offers a safe space for students to learn and grow their entrepreneurial spirit.

Heydarian explained how his entrepreneurial spirit, which he inherited from his uncle, led him to create CollegeRoleModel.com. The website helps high school students and college hopefuls find role models who then show them around their dream schools, thus giving them unique perspectives only students can provide.

“My driving force was that I noticed a defect in the college admissions process,” he said, explaining that campus tours aren’t always particularly insightful. “I’ve always wanted to be an entrepreneur, to do things on my own.”

The new survey also indicated that Generation Z overwhelmingly embraces the traditional higher education framework but also worries about the cost of college and taking on any kind of student loan debt—a fear that may have incubated in the Great Recession. What’s more, 64 percent said they are concerned about being able to get a job.

With this in mind, the panel discussion veered toward the value of higher education. Aoun noted that colleges and universities must measure their value. For too long, he said, higher education has focused on input measures (application numbers, incoming class metrics) rather than output measures (students readiness for life and the workforce). Northeastern’s education model emphasizes experiential learning, he said, noting that students gain real world experience through the university’s signature co-op program.

“We decided that there is no dichotomy between learning to live and learning to earn a living. That’s a value,” he said, adding that students gain a global perspective through co-op. Northeastern had more than 9,800 co-op placements in 2013-2014 and has placed students in experiential learning opportunities in 128 countries since 2006.

The panel fields questions from the audience.Charles Votaw Photography.

The panel fields and discusses questions from the audience. Charles Votaw Photography.

During the Q-and-A following the panel discussion, one audience member asked Heydarian if his generation feels antipathy or hostility toward big business. The question was asked in light of the survey’s findings that 42 percent expect to work for themselves and 64 percent indicated that big corporations and banks control too much in American society.

“They’ve definitely put things in perspective, that you should be wary of who you work for and be aware of what’s happening.” Heydarian said. He also called attention to the Occupy Wall Street movement, noting that some of his peers have been swayed from pursuing careers in finance.

Another question came from a businessman who said that many of his colleagues haven’t been overwhelmingly impressed with their hires from Generation Y (the Millennials) and asked if Generation Z would be different.

“I would suspect yes,” Long answered, “because it’s very different to grow up in a boom, when you think everything’s handed out for free, versus growing up in a recession where people are really struggling and having to be the best just to keep their jobs.”

Watch the full panel discussion: