4-year Degrees May Not Be What GenZ & Companies Want

GenZ students view their college options from a completely different perspective than prior generations. Several unique experiences have framed their point of view.  GenZ is more racially and ethnically diverse than prior generations. The internet has always been integral to just about everything they do. Smartphones keep them connected to social interactions, global experiences, and infinite information resources. None of these things will change. May 2020 Pew Research article describes GenZ as on track for being the “…most well-educated generation yet….” But, of course, that was before the pandemic dragged on for over a year and counting. While that educational potential hasn’t faded away completely, recent statistics confirm the pandemic’s impact. 

COVID-19 is Still an Issue

COVID-19’s varying financial challenges have remained a factor in college decision-making for over a year. Some families have always struggled with college finances, but they understood it was necessary. The pandemic has forced many families to reconsider the costs regarding the potential return on investment.  Students evaluate college education based on their potential for long-term student debt and delayed earnings capacity. They also acknowledge that a degree might not help them get a job in their desired field. This financial reassessment, along with COVID health and safety issues, has already caused a reduction in 2020 college enrollments. 
  • A net loss of 603,000 undergraduate students nationwide
  • A 9.5% decrease in total community college undergrad enrollments 
  • A 5% decrease in all colleges for students ages 18 to 24
  • 25% of students plan to delay their college entry

Considering Alternatives 

More college-aged GenZs are considering alternatives to a 4-year degree. Many entities have researched and documented student options.

Delaying College

A 2021 Citizens Bank/Junior Achievement Personal Finance Study evaluated pandemic-related financial issues. Researchers analyzed responses from 2,500 teens ages 13-19 (500 graduated from high school in 2020) 
  • Twenty-five percent of the graduates had already postponed their college entries. 
  • Ten percent of the high school seniors and juniors planned to postpone college.
  • Forty-three percent of future students anticipate a lower financial contribution from their parents. 

Alternative Educational Strategies

GenZ The ECMC Group, a nonprofit with a mission “to help students succeed,” teamed with VICE Media to produce student surveys about alternative “educational paths.” The group assists students with college applications, grants, and loans. They also provide information on high-demand technical careers such as healthcare, technology, construction, etc.  During three separate sessions from March 2020 to January 2021, ECMC/VICE interviewed 3,203 students. They determined the following.
  • When considering college, 72% worried about the debt. 
  • Fifty percent would consider education other than a 4-year college.
  • Seventy-four percent thought “career-based” education made sense. 
  • Sixty-five percent felt confident about their future, but they needed to find the right path.
  • Sixty-three percent wanted more information about alternate career paths. 


Over the past decade, the idea of apprenticeship: earning a living while learning a skill began losing its stigma. The push for 4-year degrees temporarily overshadowed the benefits of starting a career straight out of high school. However, a 2018 Harris survey for the American Staffing Association determined that apprenticeship attitudes had become more positive. 
  • Over half of workers ages, 18 to 34 say they would consider apprenticeships.
  • Four out of five of the 2,029 adults polled feel that people should consider apprenticeships. 
  • Fifty-four percent of the adults interviewed view apprenticeships favorably. 
The Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations increased apprenticeship funding in recent years. While not everyone agreed with their methodology, Department of Labor statistics show a 70% increase in apprenticeships over the past ten years. 

The GenZ Trend Started Before the Pandemic

Statistics show that this generation had already begun transitioning away from the traditional college experience. A 2019 Harris study for TD Ameritrade, the Young American & College Survey, had documented responses from teens age 15 and older. Even then, one in five students had no plans to go to college, or they didn’t know if they would attend college. They were considering a variety of alternatives. 
  • Taking online classes only
  • Attending community college with 4-year college as a later possibility
  • Two-year college only
  • Delaying college due to financial considerations
  • Taking a gap year 

Gen Z Isn’t Abandoning 4-Year Colleges 

Research studies and polls share a lot of information about this generation’s educational future. GenZ students want to participate in education, but they want it their way. They want technological integration, a particular career path, independent and group study, and the development of marketable skills. All of these requirements make sense, with or without a pandemic’s influence. But, unfortunately, they aren’t likely to change.