Generation Z, in many ways, is the most self-assured generation to date. They’re confident in their worth, in their beliefs, and in their ability to drive change. But when it comes to life after high school, they’re floundering. According to the June 2023 edition of Question the Quo, only 13% feel fully prepared to choose their path after high school.

They have seen first-hand the diminishing (and sometimes disastrous) returns of many four-year degrees, and they also see the futility of trying to survive on a minimum wage eclipsed by inflation.

As a result, they aren’t quite sure where to turn after graduation. In fact, they don’t always even know what their options are. Much of this confusion comes from the sources they turn to when making decisions. They are bias-savvy and suspicious of “fake news” and data manipulation, especially from media conglomerates, which means they rely on their inner circles — primarily parents and friends — to make decisions.

“Word-of-mouth is … important to building trust among high schoolers, a majority of whom said a recommendation from someone they trust was key to influencing their perception about and trust in a particular college,” said Rahul Choudaha, author of a recent Morning Consult survey.

And it makes sense: While Generation Z has grown up in an entirely different world than their preceding generations, it’s important to remember that at high school graduation, they are still teenagers. And what teenagers, regardless of generation, don’t turn to the people close to them when deciding their life paths?

“Teenagers are not known for their coolheaded decision-making, yet they face hundreds of choices with significant long-term consequences,” said Christine Mulhern in an EducationNext research article. “In school, they must decide which courses to take, how much effort to invest, and whether and where to enroll in college. Many understandably lack the information and capacity needed to navigate such complex options.”

Unfortunately, even their parents are not usually the best source of information when it comes to post-college decision-making.

Because their parents, of course, want their children to make decisions that will lead to career opportunities and financial stability in adulthood, they’ll steer them toward what they consider the best path toward both. However, their ideas of how to achieve that opportunity and stability are often outdated. Many of the parents of Gen Z children are part of Generation X, born between 1965 and 1980, which means they came of age in a time when a four-year degree actually was a more reliable path to success than it is today.

A paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that the undergraduate class of 2013 (Millennials) had worse financial outcomes than the class of 1996 (Generation X), a higher unemployment rate (12% versus 9%), and more student loans to boot. Generation Z sees the writing on the wall: A 2022 report by New America called Varying Degrees found they are less likely to trust higher education (35 percent of Gen Z respondents said they “generally don’t trust” the idea of college), and that college and university administrators have to work harder to earn their trust.

However, Gen Z’s parents’ survivor bias means they’re often encouraging their children to follow the same path they themselves found success in, not recognizing just how much the world has changed since they graduated.

That means in order to introduce these graduating high schoolers to other educational options, including career colleges, it’s crucial to connect with authority figures who have a finger on the pulse of the educational and economic landscape, and whom Gen Z can build real relationships with: Their teachers and their high school counselors.

Counselors in particular understand Gen Z and the world they’re entering in a way parents and friends are usually unable to. That means they can help guide them toward decisions that keep their best interests in mind for years to come. And good counselors — those who are truly invested in building relationships with their students — make an even bigger difference.

According to Mulhern’s research, “students assigned to counselors who are one standard deviation more effective than the median are 2 percentage points more likely to graduate high school, 1.7 percentage points more likely to attend a four-year college, and 1.4 percentage points more likely to persist in college into a second year. The graduation rates of the colleges students choose to attend are also 1.3 percentage points higher, suggesting that they also may be more likely to earn a degree.”

“These impacts are generally larger for students who are not white, scored below average on the state test in 8th grade, or are from low-income families,” she continues. “For example, a minority student assigned to an effective counselor is 3.2 percentage points more likely to graduate high school and 2.2 percentage points more likely to attend college. Low-achieving students assigned to an effective counselor are 3.4 percentage points more likely to graduate and 2.5 percentage points more likely to attend college. These results indicate that counselors may be an important resource for closing racial and economic gaps in college completion.”

Mid-pandemic, the Imagine America Foundation recognized just how vital high school counselors could be in guiding students’ higher education decisions, and designed a program to connect career colleges with local high school counselors, allowing them to establish strong relationships with them by providing resources, information and updates about their schools and programs.

And while life post-pandemic is slowly returning to normal in many ways, our high school recruitment program is here to stay. These attendance-guaranteed webinars have drawn an audience of more than 2,435 high school counselors during the 2022-2023 school year.
For many of our partner schools, these webinars have become a cornerstone of their burgeoning high school recruitment practices, successfully educating high school counselors and, by proxy, Gen Z, about the benefits of considering career education.

Want to learn more about the college- and university-led webinars facilitated by Imagine America, and how they can help support your efforts to recruit Generation Z students? Contact us today.