What Matters Most to Today’s Students?

Feb 20, 2019


Today’s college students are different from their parents or even their older siblings. With the oldest members of Generation Z now beginning to enter and even graduate from college, the needs and priorities of students are starting to shift. The core of what college is will not change, of course. A great education that challenges students, broadens their horizons, and prepares them for the workforce is always going to be essential. But there are some things schools can do differently to adapt to this new generation’s needs.

Research shows that Generation Z, who have grown up in the shadow of the Great Recession, are more cautious and more focused on financial security than previous generations. The Wall Street Journal reported that 82% of college freshman see becoming financially well-off as a top priority today, compared to only 36% of college freshman in 1970.

When it comes to college, financial concerns matter to today’s students. In a TD Ameritrade survey of young people ages 20-26, 57% of respondents who were college students or college graduates agreed that getting an education was a good investment. Still, young college graduates said the number-one piece of advice they would give their 18-year-old selves was to earn money while they were at college. A full 24% said that if they had to do it again they would spend less and take out less debt; and 26% said they regret taking out too much money in student loans.

These concerns may be top of mind for young graduates and current students because they are aware how student loans are shaping their financial futures. In that same TD Ameritrade survey, 39% of young graduates said student debt had caused them to delay buying a house, 31% said they had delayed saving for retirement, and 27% said they had delayed moving out of their parents’ homes.

These same financial concerns help inform current students’ satisfaction with their college experience. A recent national survey of college students at a variety of different types of institutions found that the top factors that drive student satisfaction are being able to register for classes without conflict, receiving excellent instruction in class, getting good feedback about their progress from faculty, the availability of adequate financial aid and the perception that their tuition is a worthwhile investment.

It is clear that the core value of a college education has not changed; Students go to college because they want a great education, and they are happier with their experience when they feel like they are getting great instruction and valuable feedback from faculty. But today’s students also want to make a good financial investment that will pay off in their future working lives. Most students today say their top priority after graduation is finding a job—60% of current students and 67% of recent graduates, according to a recent survey by Discover. Unfortunately, too many colleges haven’t caught up to this reality. In a recent survey of college and university trustees, only 22% said the most important role of higher education was preparing students for the workforce.

This huge mismatch in priorities can’t help but damage the relationship between students and their schools. How can colleges help students have confidence in the outcome of the investment they are making in their education? Working to ensure access to appropriate financial aid is one answer. The less debt students leave with, the quicker they will begin to realize the value of their investment.

Another, more radical answer is to help students avoid this type of debt altogether—to offer instead a payment program that explicitly ties students’ payment to post-college outcomes. Income Share Agreements (ISAs) can help finance students’ education while removing some of the risk. Instead, students agree to pay a portion of their income for a set number of years. If they land a great job after graduation, they pay accordingly, up to a pre-set cap. If they struggle to find financial security after graduation, they will not pay as much or might pay nothing at all.

An ISA is a great way for colleges to demonstrate their confidence in their graduates’ post-college outcomes. Offering ISAs to students says that a school is so confident in their product that students will only have to pay based on the value they receive. It’s an especially compelling alternative for today’s financially conservative students, because it allows them to avoid the downside risk of struggling under a potentially heavy loan burden.

Today’s students prioritize financial security. Shouldn’t schools do everything they can to help these students feel confident about investing in an education?