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Born in 1995 and later, Gen Z includes 74 million young people — about 24% of the population. According to the latest APA Stress in America Survey, Gen Zers are 27% more likely to report their mental health as poor than other generations, compared to 15% of millennials and 13% of Gen Xers. That’s why Gen Z could have another name — Gen Ztressed. Given this reality, what can higher education do to help Gen Z college students thrive?
What makes Gen Z different than other generations?
Generation Z grew up with cell phones, had Instagram before starting high school, and don’t recall a time before the internet. And because Gen Zers make up one in four Americans, it’s important to understand that Gen Z represents a clear break from past demographics. It’s a diverse generation that grew up in an era with social issues like school shootings, the Great Recession, the Occupy movement, protests over police brutality, and the legalization of gay marriage.
1. The technology revolution
For Gen Z, the role of technology is central — they’ve never known the world without it. Boomers grew up as television was evolving, Gen X grew up as the computer revolution was developing, and Millennials grew up during the expansion of the internet. But Gen Z is the first generation of digital natives, coming of age with technological advances and mobile devices like the smartphone.
The dominance of cell phones among teens affects every area of life for Gen Zers — from social interactions to mental health. They’re the first generation of lifelong internet. In fact, 98% of Gen Zers own a smartphone, which they check over 80 times a day.
2. Highly educated
Generation Z students are on track to become the most educated generation. They have higher high school graduation rates and lower dropout rates than those who came before. In 2018, 57% of 18 to 21-year olds were in college, compared with 52% of Millennials, and 43% of Gen Xers at similar ages.
Gen Zers are also the most diverse generation. Findings from The Pew Research Center show nearly half of 6 to 21-year-old Gen Zers are racial or ethnic minorities, compared with 39% of Millennials in that age bracket in 2002, and more than double the percentage of early Baby Boomers in 1968. One in four Gen Zers is Hispanic, significantly higher than the Hispanic share of Millennials in 2002. The percentage of Asians is up from 4% to 6%, while 14% are Black.
4. A focus on mental health
Sources of stress for Gen Z
When looking at data from APA Stress in America survey respondents, it’s not hard to see why stress and mental illness has increased:
- 75% of Gen Zers said mass shootings are a significant source of stress.
Gen Zers are more stressed than adults about issues in the news, such as the separation and deportation of immigrant and migrant families (57% versus 45% of all adults) and sexual harassment and assault reports (53% versus 39%).
- 64% report money and work to be stressors. Personal debt (33%) and housing instability (31%) were significant sources of stress, while nearly 28% cite hunger or food insecurity.
- 62% reported that the political climate is a significant stressor, and more than two-thirds (69%) reported that the nation’s future causes them stress. Most Americans (61%) also disagreed about whether the country is on a path to being stronger than ever.
- Twenty-four percent of adults identified discrimination as a significant source of stress — the highest percentage since 2015. Black adults (46%) and Hispanic adults (36%) reported discrimination as a significant source of stress, compared with 14% of White adults.
How has the pandemic affected a generation of students?
As of May 10, 2021, there have been 158,651,638 confirmed cases of COVID-19 across the globe, including 3,299,764 deaths. Having grown up in peacetime with advanced technologies, it’s no understatement that this catastrophe will define how Gen Z navigates the world as adults.
Recent reports confirm Gen Z’s psychological well-being and mental health have been negatively influenced by COVID-19. According to one report, over 60% of Gen Z is concerned about COVID-19 and almost half of them feel anxious or depressed. Difficulties relating to Gen Z’s psychological well-being were heightened when lockdown measures were imposed. And, the latest observations suggest that the mountains of COVID-19 information on social media overwhelmed users, having a detrimental influence on their well-being. While Gen Z grew up as digital natives, they also experience a higher-than-average level of information overload.
Another effect of COVID-19 on Gen Z is they are rethinking the value of a traditional four-year college education. For instance, matriculation in short-term credential classes over the last year increased by 70% to nearly 8 million over the same period last year. That increase came as freshman college enrollment dropped 16%.
An Associated Press study reported that 71% of Americans believe it’s beneficial for some students to attend a community college instead of a four-year institution, with a similar number agreeing that a community college education is an excellent choice. Given community colleges cost a third of what students pay at a four-year college, it’s no wonder Gen Zers are considering alternatives including apprenticeships, trade schools, and other specialized industry training.
How higher education can support Gen Z
As higher ed leaders reimagine programs and services to attract and support Gen Z students, they need to promote iterative change based on what works. It’s not an option to simply stay the course. Here are a few principles derived from The Chronicle of Higher Education that can help college administrators and educators as they consider expanding student supports for Gen Z students.
Majors and careers
Colleges must decide which programs to add, expand, scale back, or eliminate with limited resources. Focused on value, Gen Zers put great stock in their choice of major — the choices of today’s students are a departure from past generations. A shift toward practically-oriented majors has meant fewer students in the humanities, preferring health professions, computer science and engineering, biological science, and sports management, among other fields.
Knowledge is everywhere for Gen Z students. They’re accustomed to finding answers instantaneously on Google while doing homework or sitting at dinner. They seek constant information and entertainment in YouTube videos much as previous generations read magazines or watched TV. They are used to customization. And the instant communication of texting and status updates means they expect faster feedback from everyone, on everything.
Members of Generation Z don’t want expensive campus frills. They’re wary of taking on student loan debt and more willing to question the value of a degree and look for alternatives. Many remember their parents living through the recession, perhaps losing their jobs or homes. Despite the economic recovery of the past decade, financial security continues to weigh on their minds. They are interested in practical subjects with clear paths to successful careers.
Today’s students are attentive to inclusion across race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender identity, and they want colleges to live up to those ideals as well. At the same time, Gen Zers are less receptive to the principles of free speech, especially when that speech offends their values.
Gen Zers want fewer comforts and more supports during their college experience. For example, they may be fine with simpler housing in exchange for more flexible spaces that allow for increased interaction with classmates and professors. This next generation of students also needs support services like advising and counseling throughout the college journey. That means such services can’t be merely added on, but rather must be fully integrated into the student experience. Telehealth services are a great example of a complete care solution that meets the needs of a technology-driven generation. It eliminates wait times, reduces the stigma of seeking mental and medical care, and is available the moment a student needs care.
As campus leaders consider how to support Gen Z students at a time when the pool of high-school graduates is shrinking and expectations are increasing for student success, these insights can serve as touchpoints for how colleges can reach and serve this new generation of young adults.
How can your campus improve supports for Gen Z students?
TimelyMD partners with colleges and universities to expand access to care and improve student health for the better. Watch the panel discussion on Gen Ztressed: Student Mental Health in the New Now to learn how college and university leaders can lead the change on their campuses to support students who are wondering what comes next.
Hear from higher education experts from EVERFI, The Claremont Colleges, Healthy Minds Network, and The Jed Foundation (JED) on how to create a college campus environment that promotes mental well-being, and can help students navigate what they’re experiencing — the new now.
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