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Gen Z’s College Experience Is Going To Look Totally Different

What will college look like now? It’s being predicted its future is forever disrupted by COVID— and Gen Z’s higher education experience is being rewritten…


YPulse’s report on Gen Z’s interrupted education found that the majority of high school and college students feel their education has been severely set back by the Coronavirus pandemic. But while they might wish they could return to the classroom, there are significant anxieties about going back—especially among college students. Over half tell us they are afraid to go back to school in-person. Schools are also scrambling to come up with plans, with universities around the world are making tough decisions on whether they should return, and what the calendar year looks like if they do come back. Many schools have decided to continue remote learning and not open until 2021. Shorter semesters that get students off campuses by the holidays and reduce travel are another option being considered. Parents are also divided about whether colleges should reopen this fall as well, causing conflicts even within families about whether students will be willing to return, regardless of the plans institutions put in place.

But the coming fall semester is only the start of the changes at work. Economic uncertainty, a domino effect of the coming drop in enrollment, and the introduction of mass remote education are all very likely to reshape the future of education altogether for this generation. YPulse’s research found that 60% of college students say COVID-19 has changed their school plans in some way. Many are reconsidering how they will be able to pay for their degree, and one in five say they are not sure if they will go to college at all.

The decisions being made now could be shifting what college looks like for future classes of Gen Z students—here are some of the changes that could become permanent:

A Rise In the Gap Year

While colleges expected more financially strained prospective students to apply for federal aid this year, instead fewer are actually applying for it—which could mean Coronavirus is “disrupting enrollment.” According to NCAN, federal aid applications dropped significantly, tracking 2.8% behind last year. One expert doesn’t believe that “FAFSA isn’t their first priority right now” as they focus on more immediate needs and concerns. But the drop could mean major trouble for schools, as it indicates that many teens may have removed college entirely from their fall plans. According to Business Insider, four-year institutions could see an overall 20% decline in enrollment, with 26% of current students surveyed saying that it was unlikely or “too soon to tell” if they will return. But their fears about returning to campus, and the deferment of their college plans is creating a new trend: the rise of the gap year. According to a survey from the Art&Science Group, 16% of this years’ high school seniors said they will take a gap year, compared to fewer than 3% according to a previous survey by the Higher Education Research Institute. College admissions consultant Christopher Rim, the CEO of Command Education tells Business Insider, “Almost all of my students who have been admitted to top-tier colleges are reconsidering their plans for this upcoming academic year, with some submitting gap year request forms to delay the start of their freshman year so that they can have the full college experience.” With more students planning to take a year off, the gap year could become more of a norm—especially as the benefits of the time are uncovered. Gap Year Association research found that 90% of students who take a structured (keyword: structured) gap year return to school within a year and are more likely to graduate on time with a higher grade-point average. Of course, currently the travel and internships that would normally fill a structured gap year are limited. On that note, Kaplan started a program called Boost Year to “reimagine the gap year,” offering a “focused and thoughtful approach” for young adults who need guidance in their college and career trajectory. The 14-week programs, which take place in the spring and fall, offer assessments on interests and strengths, help exploring career options, an understanding of the professional skills needed for the future, and a personalized plan with the next steps. Other programs to help graduates harness the power of a gap year could be popular. Volunteer service programs and other organizations also have the opportunity to appeal to students, and provide purpose and guidance for what a gap year could be filled with.


To keep students safe, some universities are experimenting with new schedules that blend online and in-person education this fall. Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. and Hancock College in Santa Barbara, CA will be switching to shorter semesters or staggered classes to reduce the amount of students and faculty on campus at any one time. Hampshire College’s president is considering shorter-term classes that will combine remote learning with on-campus classes in case of a second wave of the virus. Classes that cannot be offered remotely, such as lab and technical classes will most likely remain in-person but follow rigorous social distancing and sanitization protocols. These hybrid solutions, where some learning is moved online and some is done in person, could be more than temporary solutions. Over half of college students tell YPulse they are open to or want to continue their remote education—and their attitudes could create a sea change for the education industry. The future of higher education could be a blend of remote work, with the occasional campus visit for important lectures of hands-on learning. Many are concerned that students will be missing out on the school traditions and social gatherings that define the college experience. In an op-ed for The New York Times, Brown University President Christina Paxson urged colleges to reopen this fall, with visions of  envisions empty stadium stands, spaced patrons at campus performances, and Zoom parties. A remote-ish college experience could fulfill both students’ desire to continue remote work when needed and the continuation of campus life—at least in some form.

Campus-Free and Lower Cost

Many institutions, like Harvard will be open in the fall, but are tentatively planning to resume classes remotely. Princeton has asked its faculty to prepare for the fall under the “assumption that their classes will be online.” But will students want to pay high price tags for these big name institutions without the campus experience. All signs indicated that they will not. Already, college students are demanding tuition refunds in the wake of COVID shutdowns. With many colleges cutting on-campus learning short and transitioning to online learning, student groups have been organizing strikes, protests, petitions, and even filing lawsuits against university administrations demanding refunds for housing, meal plans, and tuition for the shortened academic year. YPulse found that 86% of college students agree that college tuition should be lowered if students are going to classes from home. But with remote education a likely reality for the foreseeable future, the college system could be reshaped completely, with more institutions offering completely online experiences. And as we mentioned above, the majority of college students are open to remote learning. Gen Z could be forging into a future where college is campus free. Of course, if costs are lowered for remote college education, which they would likely need to be, enrollment numbers would need to increase. Much larger classes could be graduating from top tier universities if their diplomas are attained virtually—which is the future that Professor Scott Galloway tells New York Magazine he envisions. While there are certainly serious losses to be considered if campus life is abandoned, there are also silver linings: Some are saying that this remote education future will democratize the college experience, opening it up to be more available to all students, regardless of income.