An empty campus dining hall. (istock/Mikhail Shapovalov)

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Three years ago, I wrote a report on Gen Z for The Chronicle of Higher Education. Born starting around 1995, the arrival of this new generation on college campuses almost went unnoticed by college leaders who talked about millennials as if they were still the prototypical undergraduates.

“To consider Gen Zers as simply an ex­tension of millennials would be a serious mis­step. Gen Z represents a clear break from the past that has widespread implications for institu­tions.”

Yes, sweeping statements about any generation usually results in an eye roll. I sometimes find myself doing it given this generation includes my nephews and niece who are in college right now as well as my oldest who is in fifth grade. Do they really have anything in common? 

But a series of reports and surveys over the last few weeks has me thinking about Gen Z again—and if the pandemic accelerated a further shift in attitudes from previous generations in how they approach everything from college to the workplace.   

⏰ Good morning, and thanks for reading NEXT. Today’s edition—1,790 words and a 6 ½ minute read—looks at the health of private colleges, a new value equation for higher ed post-pandemic, test-optional numbers, and the presidential advisor David Gergen’s thoughts on higher ed leadership.

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Restoring Value

The trappings of a normal campus life were largely absent for many students this past academic year. The remote learning experience that replaced the traditional residential experience was seen as lacking by many Gen Zers and their parents.

  • Higher ed took a hit from the pandemic—not only financial but also reputational.
  • A recent poll by Gallup and the Carnegie Corporation of New York found nearly half of parents of current students wished there were more options beyond a four-year college available for their children.
  • Even before the pandemic, Americans on a whole were losing faith in higher ed. They think it costs too much, doesn’t prepare students for jobs, and professors too often bring their political views into the classroom.

The big picture: COVID-19 offers colleges an opportunity for a reset. Rather than every college providing a comparable set of majors with a familiar pathway to graduation—all while following similar pricing strategies—this moment offers a chance for institutions to diversify and try something different.

What’s new: A report published this month by education-technology company, Top Hat, outlines one vision for the post-pandemic university. The manifesto, dubbed the “New Higher Education Value Equation,” is an important read for college leaders trying to figure out what to retain and what to discard from the last year of remote learning.

  • As an ed-tech company, Top Hat isn’t obviously a disinterested observer. But the report doesn’t simply advocate colleges go all in on digital. Rather its approach is very student- and faculty-centric. It encourages schools to supplement well-tested teaching methods with technology to create more engaged learning experiences.

“Without a concerted effort to enable faculty to combine technology with proven pedagogy, we won’t move the needle on creating learning experiences that are more accessible, more relevant and more valuable to today’s students,” the report notes.

The report echoes what I’ve been hearing from campus leaders, including those who run teaching and learning centers, that some of the changes in how courses were taught during the pandemic are here to stay.

  • Come fall, students should expect more lectures to be pre-recorded by faculty members so in-class time can be used for discussions or group work.
  • Pressed to rethink their courses during the pandemic, faculty realized the ultimate value is student learning, not simply earning a grade (that’s why some professors are even giving up grading students on class participation).
  • This fall, students should also count on fewer tests and more low-stakes quizzes—and more flexibility with deadlines on assignments.

Deeper context: The Top Hat paper borrows an idea from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs by laying out five fundamental conditions that allow for students to thrive: Value, Engagement, Belonging, Access, Value.

  • Stuck at home and learning from their childhood bedroom, many Gen Zers complained about the lack of community this year. Helping this generation discover “belonging” on campus is a critical component to restoring higher ed’s value proposition.
  • Institutions need to equip students and faculty with “tools to nurture human connections, wherever learning takes place,” the report’s authors wrote.
  • There’s always been a divide between faculty and students by age. But the demographic divide on campuses is also wider now around race, ethnicity, and income.
  • Gen Z is the most diverse in history. So, they are very different than the instructors teaching them. That makes it more critical than ever that professors better understand the lived experiences of their students.

Bottom line: Teaching in the pandemic has reinforced the idea of “belonging” in the classroom because everyone—including professors themselves—felt vulnerable at some point over the last year as they grew accustomed to new technology and different ways of teaching and learning.

Read the whole report.

A Private College Check Up

One of the top questions I get from parents these days is whether the colleges their kids are considering will be around in four years. It’s no wonder they ask that question: hardly a day goes by where we don’t read a story suggesting dozens, maybe hundreds of colleges, will close because of the pandemic.

What’s new: A report from Moody’s Investors Services this week found that 50% of private universities saw a decline in operating revenue in 2020, compared with just 20% in 2019.

  • Some important context: Moody’s tends to only rate institutions that are going to the public market for debt. As a result, these campuses are usually financially stable to begin with. So, the fact that 50% of those institutions saw revenue declines would seem on the surface to be bad news.

Yes, but: The median budget margin for the private universities rated by Moody’s was 13.7% in 2020 vs. 13.8% in 2019. In other words, lots of private colleges didn’t go into the red during the pandemic.

  • Campuses were able to keep cash flow basically the same as the previous year thanks to cost-cutting and federal stimulus dollars.
  • While it’s important that colleges keep some breathing room in their budgets, such margins won’t sit well with tuition-paying parents frustrated they didn’t get a tuition cut during remote learning.

Bottom line: Large, comprehensive private universities are in a stronger financial position than their smaller peers, according to Moody’s. In other words, the rich got richer during the pandemic.

  • Plenty of colleges are struggling—especially small ones in the Northeast and Midwest, where demographic trends are not in their favor. Some were running deficits before COVID-19. Expect some—but certainly not all of those colleges—to go out of business or merge. 

Gen Z and the Workplace

It will be a while before GenZ takes over the workplace—after all, we have to get through that huge group of millennials first. But just like GenZ thinks differently about what they want out of college, the same is true about what new college grads want from employers, according to a recent survey by Handshake, a recruiting platform focused on college students.

The big picture: The survey indicates that the well-reported surge in women leaving the workplace during the pandemic could have a ripple effect for employers trying to recruit young women.

  • 65% of Gen Z women look for women in leadership roles before applying for a job.
  • 75% of women—and 66% of men—say they are more likely to choose a company with a demonstrated commitment to a diverse, inclusive, and equitable workforce.

Remember: Women make up nearly 60% of undergraduates and recently passed men to make up the majority of college-educated workers in the U.S.

“By 2030, Generation Z will make up a third of the workforce. As our country begins on a path to economic recovery, employers must pay close attention to this generation’s motivations, preferences, and concerns as they attract new talent,” said Christine Cruzvergara, vice president of higher education and student success at Handshake.

By the numbers: Two-thirds of students overwhelmingly say “salary ranges in job postings” is the greatest motivator for applying to a position.

  • 62% said they’d be more likely to apply to a company if the employer had a commitment to equal pay

Read the full survey report.

✳️ Test Optional With an Asterisk

With less focus on standardized tests scores in admissions for at least another year, high school counselors and next year’s seniors are already asking what the lack of required test scores had on admissions decisions this year. Good luck finding out—at least from the selective schools that ditched required test scores because of the pandemic. Many of them aren’t releasing detailed numbers.

Context: Before COVID-19, 77% of students self-reported a test score, according to Common App. This past year it was 46%.

What’s happening: One vice-president for enrollment at a top-ranked school said that in the rush to go test-optional last year, the admissions staff never had the chance to discuss how they would talk about the results of test-optional admissions. “Just releasing numbers of how many applied and were accepted test-optional misses the nuances of the overall pool,” the official told me.

  • Without test scores, students who in previous years would have been discouraged from applying after seeing the school’s median test score, applied this time around. Many admissions deans reported big differences in their applicant pools as a result—from demographics to the courses applicants took in high school.
  • Who got admitted with tests and without also differed by major. One public university dean I talked with showed me admissions rates that were remarkably similar between those with and without test scores, except in STEM and business, where students with test scores got in at much higher rates.

By the numbers: In general, my discussions with deans at about a dozen selective colleges over the last few weeks found that about half of their applicant pools applied without test scores.

  • In every case I heard so far, students with test scores got accepted more often. In some cases, the admit rate was twice as high for students with test scores vs. those without.
  • Emory: Admit rate 17% (with tests) vs. 8.6% (without tests)
  • Colgate: 25% (w/tests) vs. 12% (w/o tests)
  • Georgia Tech: 22% (w/tests) vs. 10% (w/o tests)
  • Vanderbilt: 7.2% (w/tests) vs. 6% (w/o tests)

Bottom line: For students from the Class of 2022 who are applying to schools without a long history of test-optional admissions, it’s best to have a test score if it will help your overall case.


Eyewitness to University Leadership
Eyewitness to University Leadership

In the latest episode of the FutureU podcast, we talked with presidential advisor David Gergen, about how colleges communicated in this crisis and the future of higher ed. So many gems in this episode.

  • On trust: Gergen told us that presidents need to talk this fall with different stakeholders about “the guiding principles that you will follow in the year ahead and what you’re trying to do.”
  • On leadership: Most important thing is a friend and surrounding yourself with people who will tell you what’s really going on.
  • On national service: Admissions offices should recruit students who spent a year in national service just as much as they do an athlete.

Biden and Free Community College
Biden and Free Community College

There was so much related to higher ed in Biden’s speech last night, as well as the $1.8 trillion American Families Plan. So more to come in this space, but for now take a look at Kevin Carey’s piece in the New York Times. He explains the difficulty of creating federal policy on higher ed when public colleges—and their tuition rates—are controlled by the states. (The New York Times)

Until next time, Cheers — Jeff

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Jeff has written about higher education for more than two decades and is a New York Times bestselling author of three books. His latest, Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions, was published in September...