A recent report by Jeffrey Selingo of The Chronicle of Higher Education, “The New Generation of Students,” discusses the learning habits of Gen Z students (Gen Zers), those born between 1995 and 2012, and implications for higher education. It is an interesting read that contrasts the habits of Gen Zers versus Millennials (born 1980 to 1995) and Generation X (1965 to 1980).
I was encouraged to learn that this generation is concerned with an education that can be applied and is open to a mix of learning styles – but extremely interested in experiential learning. A few takeaways that grabbed my attention, especially with our approach at UMass Lowell:
- Degree relevance and job placement are crucial: GenZers are focused on education that leads to a career. The Francis College of Engineering offers eight bachelor’s degree programs with additional options and minors such that a student can tailor their education to their desired career outcomes. Furthermore, job placement rates have been well over 90 percent across all Engineering majors for a number of years – our graduates are in high demand from employers across the region, state, and nation.
- Value and low debt are important: This generation is extremely concerned with rising student debt and its potential to alter or delay life-changing decisions, such as moving for a job, buying a house, or starting a family. At UMass Lowell, our mission statement specifically uses the word “affordable,” as we strive for accessibility by keeping tuition low and providing significant financial aid. According to cappex.com, 89% of student need is met. Furthermore, we offer many forms of student employment while on campus and our professional co-op programs, especially in Engineering, provide students the opportunity to gain valuable experience while making competitive wages.
- Services trump amenities: While every student wants the opportunity to exercise in a shiny new gymnasium, this generation would rather receive support in areas ranging from tutoring and career services to counseling and wellness. As noted by these links, UMass Lowell is dedicated to helping students succeed, in and out of the classroom.
- Experiential learning: The study reports on the desire for students to apply their knowledge from research projects to internships, both independently and collaboratively. In my opinion, this is a strength of UMass Lowell. In Engineering, we pride ourselves in providing a hands-on education, seen clearly through our large number of laboratory course offerings. However, the opportunities outside of the classroom are even greater – professional co-op, student club competitions, innovative senior design options, research opportunities, and the annual DifferenceMaker Idea Challenge and Prototyping Competitions – just to name a few!
- Soft skills and entrepreneurship: I lumped these two items together because, in my opinion, they go hand-in-hand. Being entrepreneurial requires that one looks for opportunities to improve a situation or start something new that is valuable. To do so takes creativity and grit, but it also takes the soft skills – communication, persuasion, and leadership – to bring great ideas to fruition. Our DifferenceMaker program provides training and workshops on these topics, but also sponsors competitions that allow students to practice what they have learned. An astounding 19 companies have been formed from our last six years of competitions! Furthermore, the River Hawk Experience Distinction is a credential that combines coursework with experiential learning to guide students in developing soft skills. Areas include Leadership, Entrepreneurship, Global Engagement and Community Engagement.
This list fills me with great optimism! If students are looking for value and support on a career path that is defined by experiential learning to develop skills beyond a textbook, then faculty should be excited about our next generation of learners.