While YPulse data shows the majority of Gen Z and Millennials now say we are in a post-pandemic era, that doesn’t mean that it hasn’t had lasting effects on their world view. And one thing that was seriously affected was their education, which made them rethink everything they thought they knew about the clear path to higher ed they’ve been following for most of their lives. As college decision day has just passed in America—the final day for students to commit to a college or university for the fall semester—we’ll be seeing if the downward trend for enrollment reported last year continues. But either way, our data shows that their feelings about receiving a college degree, and even their plans to get one in the first place, have changed significantly since 2019.
As of March, there was a reported 8% decline in college enrollment from 2019 to 2022, showing Gen Z was beginning a shift in planning their futures. What may have begun as a “pandemic blip” is now a larger trend inGen Z’s changing view on education and career-building. Seeing the way many Millennials are saddled with insurmountable debt from the higher ed system, and knowing from their online lives that other paths are possible, these high school and even middle school students are reconsidering if they even need college to be successful. With data from our Education report, we can see that Gen Z students have significantly different opinions on their college plans now than they did four years ago:
The number of Gen Z planning to go to college has changed drastically since the pandemic began
In 2019, YPulse data showed 100% of middle and high school students planned to go to college. But in 2020, that number dropped to 85%, indicating that virtual schooling drastically changed their perception of whether now was the right time to pursue higher education. In fact, YPulse’s Life Plans, Rewritten trend report found that in January 2021, two in five Gen Z agreed with the statement, “The pandemic has made me less interested in pursuing higher education.” The number planning to go to college dropped again in August 2021 to 82%, and while it stood at 84% in 2022, it’s clear that college / university is no longer a given for this generation.
Instead, our data shows 55% of Gen Z now agree they are interested in taking a gap year between high school and college, whereas only 44% agreed in 2019. However, a gap year indicates they are planning to pursue a degree eventually, but others are not planning to go to college at all. Because now, YPulse data shows the majority of young people, even college graduates, don’t think a degree is the only key to success:
The majority of young people don’t think they need a college degree to be successful
In 2019, more than half of Gen Z (57%) disagreed with the statement, “I don’t need a college degree to be successful.” But flash forward to 2022, and 68% of Gen Z are in agreement, as well as 72% of Millennials—even though they’re the ones already done school. There’s a variety of reasons why they’re feeling this way, even beyond the impacts of the pandemic. According to Wiley’s State of the Student Survey, “55% of undergrads and 38% of grad students reported that they were struggling to remain interested in classes they believe don’t teach practical skills.” YPulse data shows that among current college students, the top skill they are most interested in learning (that their school doesn’t currently teach them) is mental health skills, followed by cooking and personal finance. The reality is, Gen Z know they can learn the skills they’re looking for, ones that will lead to a career path they’re passionate about, from places other than school. In fact, when YPulse asks “If you wanted to learn something new, what resources would you use?” middle, high school, and college students are more likely to choose Google and YouTube over a teacher.
And because they don’t feel like college is giving, or will give, them all the tools they need to be successful, 74% of Gen Z agree: “I wish I’d learned more about alternatives to a traditional college education growing up.” Even more Millennials say so (81%), which Gen Z likely sees from friends and family members, and only strengthens their belief that college is not the only—or perhaps even the best—route to success. Instead, these are the experiences and qualifications Gen Z and Millennials say they actually need to be successful now:
Gen Z thinks work experience is more important to their success than a college degree
Of 13-21-year-olds, 52% say they need work experience to be successful, but less than half (46%) say they need a college degree. Middle school students are actually the ones leading this, even more than high school students, as 57% say work experience is needed for success compared to only 38% who say a college degree. As young as they are, middle school aged Gen Z really see a future for themselves that doesn’t have to include college—in fact, as of now, they’re less likely to say they plan to go to college (80%) than high school students (85%).
High school students are equally likely (49%) to say a college degree and work experience are necessary for success, but more say they need a high school diploma (54%). While high school students are not feeling as strongly about not needing a college degree as middle schoolers right now, they aren’t placing it as number one on their list, which shows they’re not 100% sold on the idea of needing one to succeed.
So, while the vast majority of Gen Z do still plan to go to college, a sizeable percentage of this gen is considering other ways to forge their future. By prioritizing work experience over higher education, our data shows Gen Z is weighing the prospects of debt, the skills they can find elsewhere, and their career interests carefully.