How Gen Z and Adult Learners Value the Same Thing … and Why Higher Ed Can’t Afford to Ignore Them Though adult students and their teenage counterparts may seem different, they're both after the same college experience

The higher-ed industry typically distills students into two segments: traditional and adult. The former paints an image of a stereotypical on-campus college co-ed, while the latter shows a portrait of a working adult, attempting to master the elusive work-life-school balance.

Universities market to these segments in different ways; traditional students get unlimited froyo in the dining hall, and their adult counterparts get online classes. And though it’s important to cater to these groups’ differences, the data about the two groups reveals a surprising fact: “kids these days” and adult learners have more in common than you’d think – and they both want the same thing from colleges.


Who is Gen Z?

Generation Z, the demographic cohort born between the mid-1990s and early 2000s, is technologically fluent, glued to their Snapchat feeds, and more complex than they receive credit for.

Gen Z came of age during a turbulent time in America when layoffs and foreclosures were the norm, and their older Millennial siblings graduated from college only to find a shortage of jobs and unpayable student loans. As a result, this generation is cognizant of financial difficulties (Lincoln Financial Group reports that 60% of them already have their own savings account), and more debt-averse than the Millennials and Gen X-ers who came before them. In fact, a recent survey of Gen Z teens by College Savings Fund found that only 11% of participants said they’d be willing to take on debt in order to cover college bills, and 85% say they plan to work during college in order to cover those expenses.

It’s true that college enrollment numbers for Gen Z are steadily declining, but that’s not to say that Gen Z-ers don’t value education – they’re just doing it their own way.  Unlike their Millennial predecessors who studied arts and humanities in droves, Gen Z-ers want an education that’s as realistic and outcome-driven as they are. 82% of teen Gen Z-ers who plan to continue their education state that they’re doing so in order to increase their earning potential, and they’ve turned to college majors like nursing and engineering to facilitate that income boost.

In short: Generation Z students are pragmatists who want tangible outcomes from colleges – all at an affordable price.


Portrait of an Adult Student

The term Adult Student is as vague as it is far-reaching, and this group is growing quicker by the year; by 2020, the number of adult students is expected to rise by a staggering 43%.  Among the thousands of individual stories within this ever-increasing group of students, there’s one prevailing fact: the primary reason adult students pursue a college degree is in order to make more money.

Sound like another group you know?

Another commonality this group has with Generation Z? They learned their lesson from the Great Recession, but in some cases, they learned them firsthand. While the economy has steadily improved since its lowest point in 2009, the financial outlook continues to be poor for individuals without a college degree. It’s estimated that 55 million new job openings will be created by 2020, but 65% of those jobs will require postsecondary credentials. Additionally, The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that unemployment rates are more than double for adults over 25 with only a high school diploma than they are for those who hold a bachelor’s degree. And, as if that wasn’t enough, the under-educated are at higher risk of outsourcing, automation, and layoffs.

Just like Gen Z students, Adult Students look to higher-ed as the answer. Unlike Gen Z students, though, adult learners need skills that can improve their job prospects now. This group is made up of working professionals who almost always have more financial burdens and less free time, and their college experience needs to serve them. Adult students prefer instructors with “applied experience in the fields in which they teach,” and 70% of them say that they expect to apply their studies to their current job. To summarize: they don’t want college to be easy – they just want it to be relevant

One last similarity adult students have with Gen Z-ers is their reluctance to amass student debt. This group is more likely to have the common financial constraints that accompany adulthood (think: mortgage, car payment, and child care), and they’re even less likely to borrow for education than younger students.

To paraphrase: adult students need marketable skills that will help them now and later, and – just like Gen Z-ers – they don’t want to overspend on their education.


What can higher-ed do about it?

At first glance, it may not seem as if Generation Z teenagers and working adults have much in common, but once you sift through the data, their commonalities appear. So, what’s the answer? It’s simple. Give the people what they want: education that will set them up for a career, and access to resources that will help them pay for it.


Katie Van Hazelen

Katie Van Hazelen is a Content Strategist at Helix Education and has experience in public relations, marketing communications, and corporate communications. Katie is a graduate of The University of Utah and, prior to joining Helix, worked as a consultant, and in the banking industry.