The COVID-19 pandemic changed nearly everything—including how young people are thinking about higher education and work. 

That’s according to the latest “Question the Quo” report released recently from ECMC Group, a nonprofit that looks at student success, and Vice Media. They talked to more than 7,300 high school students nationwide between the ages of 14 and 18 seven times beginning in 2020. Responses in this latest report are based on a January 2023 survey. 

One of the biggest takeaways, the report highlights, is that teens believe postsecondary education is more necessary than ever. Members of Generation Z were born after 1996, according to the Pew Research Center’s classification

But half of that group had already ruled out attending a four-year institution. “Consideration of four-year college has decreased 14 percentage points since before COVID-19 and nearly 20 percentage points since the early days of the pandemic,” the report said. 

At the same time, interest in shorter, non-degree options is rising, including things like  credential and certificate offerings. Those offer training in lots of fields, including healthcare and information technology. 

Baston on business

Earning some type of education after high school can be a big deal. For individuals, it can impact all kinds of things, from their potential lifetime earnings to how healthy they are. Plus, employers need educated residents to fill jobs, and regions need that to happen to create and sustain healthy economies.  

In factin a June column in Smart Business magazine, Cuyahoga Community College President Michael Baston highlighted how he believes “cultivating an entrepreneurial spirit” can spur growth in Northeast Ohio. 

Things are changing, Baston wrote. More workers, especially those under 40 years old, are taking on gig work. That means they’re working in positions that can be short-term, freelance, and/or contract jobs. All sorts of occupations fall under that umbrella. The list can range from driving with a ride-share app like Uber to being a freelance graphic designer. 

“The gig economy is a valuable driver for regional growth and a source of untapped talent that can address our regional skills gap,” Baston wrote. “It will propel us all forward if we nurture it properly.”

Eyeing the future

More workers want “a work environment that is tailor-made to their passions and ambitions,” Baston wrote. That seems to align with what Gen-Z teens are thinking about. More than half of respondents in the “Challenging the Quo” report said they’d rather take on a career they’re passionate about over one that might pay more. 

“They want to work when and where they want, for the people and organizations they want, and to determine their compensation,” Baston said in the Smart Business column. “They value work/life balance, and control of their careers and income, over the benefits and security of traditional employment.” 

Officials at Tri-C, according to Baston’s column, are responding by shifting their mindsets. There are still options for more traditional jobs. But they’re also working to offer different pathways to help attract those interested in being part of the gig economy and/or entrepreneurs to the college. 

Action items include things such as Tri-C’s Corporate College offerings and continuing the college’s partnership with Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Small Businesses program. Plus, Tri-C is planning to offer an entrepreneurship program, he wrote. 

Gen-Z and work

Baston talked about the rise of young people taking on gig work in an interview with Signal Cleveland last year, too. 

“We’ve got to be able to talk to this generation about how they have options and how we can come alongside them with education to support the entrepreneurial dreams of so many of those young people who are deciding not to come to college, not even to finish high school in some cases,” he said. 

Considering options is already on the mind of Gen-Z, this “Challenging the Quo” report found. Nearly one in four students from low-income, first-generation and BIPOC backgrounds indicated they want to know more about getting a job or becoming part of the gig economy to help pay for school. 

They’re already concerned about money. A majority of them indicated they really want more guidance about finances, with 60% wondering how they’ll pay for classes. 

One way could be taking on “learn and earn” opportunities, like apprenticeships. In fact, 80% of respondents said they want some type of on-the-job training to be part of whatever postsecondary education they enroll in. That’s up 14 percentage points from last year, the report said. 

Employers should take note, the report’s authors said. Wherever they work, members of Gen-Z  believe their employers will be “involved in their education process.” 

“To attract workers from this demographic, employers should consider offering support, such as offering tuition reimbursement for a variety of educational pathways, providing formal training programs or funding future educational pursuits for their workers,” the report  recommended. 

Amy Morona covers higher education for Signal Cleveland, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for Signal Cleveland in partnership with Open Campus.