For decades, career college recruitment specialists have focused primarily on enrolling older adults: those with time in the workforce, with families, with less desire and fewer resources to commit to a traditional on-campus, four-year degree. Those adult learners aren’t going anywhere, thanks to employment market volatility, mass layoffs and pervasive ageist hiring practices. But they’re no longer the only group you should focus on recruiting.

Now more than ever, the demand for skilled workers is increasing dramatically. As the baby boomer generation retires, that demand — and opportunity — is in the hands of Generation Z: Including students who are getting ready to graduate high school.

High school juniors and seniors have seen the generations before them go to traditional colleges, choose an “in-demand” major and graduate … only to be left with no job prospects and debilitating student loans. They’re questioning the value of higher education as well as the “hustle and grind” mentality of corporate America, and are feeling hopeless about their futures.

A recent Morning Consult survey explored the trust Americans have in universities, and found, unsurprisingly, that Generation Z trusts higher education the least. While there’s nuance to what the concept of trust means in this concept, to society and to an individual, the survey uncovered the importance of appealing to high school students in new ways.

“As universities and colleges face declining enrollment, these young adults are a critical group,” said Rahul Choudaha, author of the survey. Part of the intent of the survey, he said, was “understanding the diverse needs of [college and university] audiences and figuring out how best they can respond to it is something we also wanted to achieve out of this report.”

To begin, it’s important to recognize what high school students want to achieve through higher education, and whether they think that achievement is likely.

If even an incredibly expensive college education can’t guarantee them career stability or the funds to buy a house or start a family, what’s next for them after high school?

One solution, of course, is career education.

Already, Gen Z is more receptive to the idea of career education than the generation that came before them. With stringent legislation regulating the for-profit college industry and the sector’s bad actors out of the picture, this is the first cohort in a while that may trust the motivations and outcomes of career colleges even more than their traditional counterparts.

“Gen Z seems to have more in common with their grandparents who were more focused on technical skills that allowed them stable careers in trades, and less in common with their parents’ generation, who had low-cost access to four-year degrees and general education programs,” said Juliana Stancampiano for Fast Company.

“Rather than waiting for a four-year degree to start earning an income, they can train in a 2-12 month program, start a paying job, and work for a company offering tuition reimbursement for four-year degrees and opportunities for promotion,” said Stancampiano. “Gen Z is hacking the system by circumventing the traditional college experience to learn and grow on the job.”

For high school students, the opportunity to receive hands-on training that prepares them for skilled labor positions in in-demand industries is appealing. The opportunity to complete that training and enter the workforce much more quickly than a four-year education would only sweeten the deal.

For career colleges, the opportunity to further gain the trust of this savvy, somewhat-skeptical group is just waiting to be seized. Consider the following results from an ECMC/VICE Media survey of high school students:

-Just 48% are considering a four-year university path
-74% think career-based education makes sense today
-63% said the top place to learn is in a hands-on lab

However, according to a study by Big Rentz, only 16% of Gen Z students believe that an education in the skilled trades can lead to high paying jobs. That’s where the real opportunity comes into play.

Already, career colleges are seeing this shift come to life in enrollment trends. Where fall 2022 enrollment dropped by 0.9 percent at four-year public universities, enrollment increased 2.2 percent at for-profit institutions — the largest increase across institutional types. Additionally, enrollment in bachelor’s degree-granting programs is down, but enrollment in undergraduate certificate-granting programs is up, according to Inside Higher Ed.

It’s our opportunity — and our responsibility — to educate the next generation on the truth about career and technical education. Addressing that responsibility is a big undertaking, and one that can’t be taken lightly. As digital natives, Gen Z is very perceptive of advertising campaigns that rely on false claims or societal narratives rather than individual outcomes.

And while their generation has gotten a reputation for being terminally online, your best bet toward gaining their trust isn’t necessarily through TikTok.

“Brand awareness for colleges and universities doesn’t just come from advertising or social media but also from how a specific university or the higher education sector in general is addressing issues that matter to individuals,” said Choudaha.

The best way to focus on high school student enrollment is to focus on the students’ circle of influencers — and who comprises that circle may be surprising.

This blog post was sponsored by the Imagine America Foundation’s Career Students First Initiative.