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Introducing Gen Z: Research indicates arrival of a new class of students

University of Arizona alumni Corey Seemiller and Meghan Grace have just published a new book on Generation Z, a new generation that is swiftly replacing Millennials on college campuses across the nation

University of Arizona

The higher education sector had begun to make technological and teaching adjustments based on the demands of the tech-savvy Millennial generation - and now comes a new crop: Generation Z.

University of Arizona alumni Corey Seemiller and Meghan Grace have just published results from a nationwide study on the educational motivations and learning styles of Generation Z, also called Net Generation and iGeneration, whose members were born between 1995 and 2010.

In the co-authored book, "Generation Z Goes to College," published in January by Jossey-Bass, Seemiller and Grace detail that while Millennials and Generation Z share certain things in common, understanding what makes them dissimilar is keenly important for colleges and universities.

"Every generation will have its passions, its distrust of authority and differing relationships with parents," said Seemiller, a Gen-Xer who earned her doctorate from the UA Center for the Study of Higher Education.

"What's interesting when we do research is that we are able to see the differences in motivations in what these different generations care about and how they see the world," said Seemiller, who is now an assistant professor of leadership studies at Wright State University.

To understand Generation Z's characteristics, skills and concerns, Seemiller and Grace surveyed more than 1,100 college students attending 15 diverse higher education institutions in Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, New York and elsewhere across the U.S.

Their survey results were complemented by data from nearly 300 other sources, including Northeastern University's Innovation Imperative series, the Higher Education Research Institute's Cooperative Institutional Research Program, the Pew Charitable Trusts and the U.S. Census Bureau.

Seemiller and Grace detail that Generation Z members have recently begun entering the nation's colleges and universities and now make up about one-third of the U.S. population. It is believed that Generation Z is the last in America in which whites will be the majority population.

The researchers also found that Generation Z members:

  • Describe themselves as being influential, thoughtful, loyal, compassionate, open-minded and responsible. Have repeatedly received the message that they must be entrepreneurial, and comfortably adopt that mentality.

  • Name education, employment and racial equality as their greatest concerns, more so than immigration, climate change and the legalization of marijuana - issues they believe are receiving the nationwide attention they deserve.

  • Are often disengaged from political participation and take little interest in running for public office, preferring not to participate in what they view as a dysfunctional political system.

  • Are very career minded, having seen adults around them lose their jobs - in the midst of historically high unemployment rates - and foreclose on their homes. Are intimately aware not only of troubles and traumas happening in the lives of family members and friends, but of communities around the world. Have a "thoughtful worldview" and want to engage in service that has a tangible and lasting impact on systematic and structural problems.

  • Are "we-centric" and are generally motivated by a desire to help and please others; they want to advocate and work on behalf of something they believe in.

  • Are willing to take personal risks if they believe they have more to gain.

"There is so much buzz around Millennials, but Generation Z is such a fascinating group of students," said Grace, who earned a master's from the Center for the Study of Higher Education and is now the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity's new-member orientation director.

Seemiller and Grace explained that while Millennials are generally optimistic, prefer to share their thoughts and experiences comma and are more likely to believe in the American Dream, Generation Z members are often more realistic about their lives and futures, prefer to follow and consider their parents as important role models.

Also among the most significant differences between the social framing powers shaping the perceptions of Millennials and Generation Z is that those from the latter generation grew up during one of the most significant recessions on record, are keenly aware of rising higher education costs and have had a lifetime of unparalleled access to digital and online resources.

"Millennials were raised during a budget surplus and tend to be optimistic and hopeful; Generation Z is a lot more pragmatic and down to earth," Seemiller said. "Generation Z is a little more cautious when thinking about how everything is going to be great because they have been grounded in a sense of reality by their parents, who are by and large Generation Xers who have been deemed cynical rebels in some ways."

Seemiller and Grace said they both set out on the study hoping to help higher education administrators, faculty members and practitioners to identify and maximize the educational impact on Generation Z students.

Among their recommendations, Seemiller and Grace called on colleges and universities to: flip classrooms for more practical and applied learning; expand experiential learning; more clearly tie learning outcomes to workforce value; and expand support for the creation of new inventions and businesses.

"We should capitalize on their passion and engagement because many see higher education as a steppingstone for their careers," Seemiller said. "Generation Z wants to address the root cause. Students don't want these one-time experiences where they just go on a service trip addressing symptoms of a larger issue. They want to do something they are passionate about and that will make a long-term difference."


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