Northwest Association of College & University Housing Officers

Generation Z Goes to College

By Matt Lamsma 

For the past decade, higher education in the United States has crafted policies, practices, and programs to meet the needs of students from the much-studied Millennial generation.  However, a new generation has enrolled in college and campus leadership must begin to adapt to a different set of student learning styles, expectations, and concerns.  Generation Z Goes to College shares some of the first research on people born between 1995 and 2010.  Authors Corey Seemiller and Meghan Grace start the conversation about the traits, skill sets, values, and motivations of current, traditional-aged, college students.  Seemiller and Grace designed the Generation Z goes to College study to discover generational characteristics, explore how current students communicate and develop relationships, and determine the pertinent social issues of current college students.  Both authors work in higher education and tailor their writing and recommendations to faculty, academic leaders, and student affairs professionals.

Filled with data-informed insights, Generation Z Goes to College, heralds an optimistic view of today’s students.  In comparing current students to former generations, Seemiller and Grace believe “Generation Z will have a strong work ethic similar to Baby Boomers and the responsibility and resiliency of their Generation X parents, and they may even be technologically savvier than the Millennials” (p. 6).  Generation Z has doubts about cost and value of higher education, but they are generally characterized by entrepreneurship, innovation, independence, and concern for positive social change.

Generation Z Goes to College is divided into an introduction and ten chapters categorized around the author’s survey results.  The introduction and chapter one describe the Generation Z goes to College study and provides a brief review of previously studied U.S. generations.  Seemiller and Grace use chapter two to outline generational beliefs related to religion and politics.  Chapters three and four cover the themes of communication patterns and social media utilization.  Relationships with family and friends are covered in chapter five.  The authors discuss generational concerns about social issues such as education, employment, and equality in chapter six.  Chapters seven and eight indicate how Generation Z may seek to change and lead around those issues.  The final two chapters outline the survey results related to Generation Z as students and in the workplace.

Two insights in Generation Z Goes to College stand out to the reader: 1) Generation Z is the first generation where the internet has always existed and 2) Generation Z is the last U.S. generation where white students will be the majority race.  These realities drive the learning styles, communication patterns, and personal beliefs of the generation.  In making recommendations for faculty, Seemiller and Grace challenge educators to make accommodations for technology such as laptops, smart phones, and the internet.  Their research reminds faculty that current students have always been able to instantaneously look up facts with a Google search.  Pedagogies such as a flipped classroom, group work, and facilitating learning instead of lectures will best reach current students.

The authors believe that the insight regarding a shrinking white racial majority drives Generation Z’s strong value for equity and a collective passion for social justice issues.  Seemiller and Grace discovered, however, that the means for engaging as activists is different from past generations.  Generation Z is less likely to volunteer for, or donate money to, a social or political cause than previous generations.  But they are more likely to seek out coordinating roles or engage in social media based activism.  For leaders within higher education, the authors suggest that students expect campus policies to be equitable and will push for programs that promote accessible and affordable education.

The authors report findings from a study of almost 1,200 Generation Z college students across the United States.  At first glance this sample size seems adequate, but further review shows a lack of diversity in institutional type and student demographics.  The authors attempt to supplement the weaknesses in their study sample with market research and data from other studies of college students.  A critical the reader will wonder if the conclusions and recommendations require an inappropriate amount of conjecture on the part of Seemiller and Grace.  Additionally, the study was conducted between August and October of 2014 when social movements like Black Lives Matter were just becoming prominent and before the U.S. political landscape was altered by the 2016 presidential election and resulting unrest.  The current social and political climate will obviously impact how Generation Z experiences college.  Nevertheless, Generation Z Goes to College serves to alert university leadership that the time has come to move from a campus created for the Millennial generation to a campus where institutional policies, programs, practices, and pedagogies meet the needs of the next generation.

Seemiller, C. & Grace, M.  (2016).  Generation Z goes to college.

Matt Lamsma currently serves as the Dean of Student Engagement at Gonzaga University. He is a past NWACUHO Washington State Representative and served as president of the organization in 2008-2009. Matt is enrolled in a PhD in Higher Education program at Azusa Pacific University and will likely be studying the impacts of student affairs staff on college student success for his dissertation.

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