Gen Z Takeover: Could online colleges gain traction with young students?

Editor’s note: From technology and money to mental health, this series looks at how colleges are adapting to the needs and desires of its youngest generation of learners. Read the previous post here.

This story was largely reported before the coronavirus disrupted the academic year, driving instruction online. As a result, how younger students perceive online programs may change. Nonetheless, we think the trends outlined in this story are important for all types of colleges to be aware of and understand how they are impacted.

Four-year universities have long encouraged students coming straight from high school to enroll in their campus-based programs while guiding older learners to their online divisions, creating a divide between the two groups.

But Generation Z, whose members were born in 1997 or later, may prove to be the force that can break down those barriers. 

At Western Governors Universityan online institution that targets adult learners for self-paced programs that begin each month, students average 37 years old.

Yet Gen Zers are the university’s fastest-growing demographic. Students between the ages of 18 and 22 accounted for 8.4% of students who began programs this February, up from 5.1% in January of 2018, according to data provided to Education Dive. That trend coincided with a decline in the share of new students who are 43 and older. 

Western Governors has company. Other large, online-only or online-focused colleges that cater to working adults told Education Dive that Gen Zers or young millennials are accounting for a larger share of their student bodies. 

Though the increases are small — sometimes just one or two percentage points — Western Governors and its peers each enroll tens of thousands of students, suggesting a considerable number of traditional-age students are eschewing residential campuses in favor of more flexible, online options. 

That’s the case for Nehemías Olvera-Novack, a Western Governors student who was born in 1997 and is studying software development. Although he originally enrolled in a community college in Washington state, he struggled to juggle classes and a full-time job with odd hours. 

“Sometimes the class I would need to take that quarter would be only available at 7 a.m., but I wouldn’t be able to leave work until midnight,” he said in an interview with Education Dive. The need for more flexibility was one reason he looked into other colleges.

Financing a degree without debt 

Working while in college may be an attractive option to many Gen Zers, who are more debt-averse than previous generations. Experts say these attitudes are likely due to watching millennials put off key milestones like getting married or buying a house in order to pay off their student loans. 

In a 2019 survey of around 500 high school students, 46% of Gen Zers said they might take out student loans, down from 65% the previous year. At the same time, it found that 89% of younger learners planned to work while in school. 

For Olvera-Novack, affording college meant getting an entry-level warehouse job with Amazon

His experience is similar to that of many other students. In 2017, 43% of full-time and 81% of part-time undergraduates were working while in college, according to federal data

And other research has found that around half of working learners are low-income students who rely on their jobs to help support themselves throughout college. Although federal data shows that a slightly higher share of students were working while enrolled in college in 2005 than in 2017, observers say people are becoming more open to online options for education. 

“There was a long period of time when the message in this country was just, ‘Go to college,'” said Marie Cini, president of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learningin an interview with Education Dive. “But that front-loaded education, where you go for four years, you live on campus, you have the college experience — increasingly, we’re seeing people say, ‘That’s not the college experience I necessarily want.'” 

This trend is blurring the lines between who is considered an adult learner and a traditional-aged student, Cini said. Many younger students have the same needs and responsibilities, such as a job and a family, as older students. 

Western Governors isn’t the only college that is focused on working learners and seeing an uptick in younger students. At Southern New Hampshire University, undergraduates ages 18 to 23 accounted for about 16% of online undergraduate enrollment in 2016. This year they inched up to almost 19% of the college’s some 104,000 online undergraduates —​ about doubling in their numbers to nearly 20,000 learners as the school’s enrollment swelled. 

Lower costs may be one of the main reasons younger learners are seeking out online-only programs, said Corey Seemiller, a researcher who studies higher education and Gen Z.  

Two-thirds of surveyed Gen Zers rank paying for college as their top concern, according to research conducted by David and Jonah Stillman, co-authors of a book about Gen Z in the workplace. 

“That front-loaded education, where you go for four years, you live on campus, you have the college experience — increasingly, we’re seeing people say, ‘That’s not the college experience I necessarily want.'”

Marie Cini

President, Council for Adult and Experiential Learning

Instead of paying for the added costs of a residential program, some Gen Zers may be looking to online programs as a way to save on housing, transportation and other expenses associated with attending college, said Jim Fong, director of the Center for Research and Strategy at the University Professional and Continuing Education Association, in an interview with Education Dive. 

Gen Zers may be savvier consumers than previous generations when selecting colleges, he said. “That’s fueling some of the diversion to online providers.”

For instance, Western Governors is priced lower than many residential four-year universities. Its published tuition and fees add up to around $6,500 annually, compared to an average of $10,440 for in-state public four-year institutions and $36,880 for private schools, according to data from the College Board. 

Tuition at the University of Maryland Global Campus — which offers mostly online programs — starts at around $7,000 annually for full-time students, making it one of the state’s lowest-priced four-year options. It, too, has seen a small increase in the share of undergraduates who are ages 21 and younger, from 7.5% in 2015 to 8.7% in 2019. It enrolled 71,905 undergraduates that year, a 12.6% increase from 2015.

However, its figures include students who are enrolled at other institutions and taking additional credits that they plan to transfer.

Some online-focused colleges are making a play for students by more aggressively undercutting their competitors on price. Southern New Hampshire recently struck a deal with Pennsylvania’s community colleges that allows their transfer students to count up to 90 credits toward a bachelor’s degree online and gives them a 10% discount on tuition. 

That rate — which translates to $288 per credit hour — is lower than what students would pay at nearly any other public four-year institution in the state. Analysts said the move could harm Pennsylvania’s four-year colleges and drive up competition for students in the state. 

Even campus-based institutions are wading into lower-priced online undergraduate degrees. The London School of Economics recently partnered with 2U to offer seven online bachelor’s degrees that will cost around $26,000.

Tuition as a benefit

Officials at ASU Online said its partnership with Starbucks is likely bringing in younger students. The coffee chain’s employees are eligible for free tuition at the online arm of Arizona State University. 

About half of the roughly 14,000 students enrolled through the program are 25 or younger. 

Overall, some 30% of ASU Online’s 45,000 students are 25 or younger, up from 27% in 2016. The institution has also seen a small dip in the share of students between ages 30 and 39. 

“This population has come out of high school and is not a traditional educational population,” said Casey Evans, senior director of strategic learner and program mobilization at EdPlus, Arizona State’s internal teaching innovation unit, in an interview with Education Dive. “They’re deciding to proceed with a career and go to get a good job at Starbucks to take advantage of an educational benefit that enabled them to get pretty much a free education.” 

A similar partnership with ride-sharing service Uber may also help. Drivers can get free tuition for either themselves or a family member. 

“From the research we’ve done with Gen Z, the price matters,” Seemiller said. “There are many potential students opting not to go to college if they have to foot the bill.” 

That’s why tuition benefits can be a potent enrollment driver. “When you’re in that situation, you’re going to probably choose the free or subsidized college options,” she added. 

“Price matters. There are many potential students opting not to go to college if they have to foot the bill.”

Corey Seemiller

Gen Z researcher

Tuition-benefit programs, which employers are increasingly using to help retain workers, particularly those on the front lines of retail and foodservice operations, may lead more Gen Zers to online institutions. 

Guild Education, which helps companies offer employee education benefits through online colleges, says a quarter of students accessing its programs are under age 25. Its partner schools include Southern New Hampshire, Brandman and Wilmington universities.

Education is becoming more “intertwined throughout one’s career and lifetime,” Guild President Josh Scott told Education Dive in an email. As a result, he added, Gen Z members are expecting their employers to provide them with more training and education opportunities. 

Other online-focused institutions view employer-sponsored education as an opportunity to draw younger students.

Though Brandman University, an online-only institution based in California, hasn’t seen a notable increase in its Gen Z population, it is hoping to make inroads with younger students through recent partnerships. 

The nonprofit College Together places students in jobs at Philadelphia restaurants and allows them to earn a degree from Brandman without taking on debt. Gary Brahm, the university’s chancellor, said the program targets students coming out of high school.

In the meantime, the university plans to keep playing up the flexibility of its programs. “Time will tell what the digital native students … feel is the most appropriate way for them to earn their education,” he said. 

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