Here’s why Gen Z students are less optimistic about their postsecondary opportunities

Affordability is one of the primary reasons middle and high school students simply can't see themselves enrolling in college. Here's what leaders need to know.

Time and time again, research uncovers the thoughts and perceptions of K12 students regarding the overall education landscape and their college and career goals. Oftentimes, these studies paint a rather grim reality, citing several external factors barring students from being able to achieve their full potential beyond high school. Unsurprisingly, this is what current data depicts.

Last week, Gallup and the Walton Family Foundation unveiled the Gen Z Panel, one of the largest and most comprehensive national research studies that tracks overall sentiment and behavior over time specific to this generation.

Among the indicators of measurement include how students feel regarding their ability to successfully transition to a meaningful life and/or career post-graduation, as well as their school’s ability to prepare them for such events.

For instance, some 44% of Gen Z students report feeling “prepared” for their future, suggesting that this lack of confidence is a reflection of their schools’ efforts to support them in this regard. Furthermore, most middle and high school students argue that their schools don’t provide them with the practical learning skills that are essential for entering the workforce.

When surveyed on whether their school offers development opportunities to learn skills, like how to prep for a job interview, only 29% of middle and 34% of high school students said they had access to such resources.

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Another traditionally common barrier students face that impacts their postsecondary lives is the affordability of a college degree. Although 62% of Gen Z students want to pursue a postsecondary degree, just more than half (53%) of both middle and high school students believe they’re able to afford it.

While affordability is the primary reason students may not be able to attend college, many others exist, including:

  • Uncertainty on how to choose the best postsecondary pathway: 41%
  • Lack of information about potential pathways: 37%
  • Lack of motivation: 34%
  • Concerns surrounding student loan debt: 33%
  • Lack of exposure to work or careers: 27%

“Empowering Gen Z to achieve their goals and aspirations requires that schools provide students with relevant experiences and education that will help them navigate the workforce,” Gallup partner and Executive Director for Education Research Stephanie Marken said in a statement. “For students who want to pursue postsecondary education, we have to communicate affordable paths to education and training beyond high school so that every student can realize post-high school dreams.”

What leaders are doing to help

Providing exposure to college and career pathways for middle and high school students is arguably one of the best ways superintendents and administrators can prepare their Gen Z students. Over time, District Administration has had the opportunity to hear from some of today’s most innovative leaders who are doing just that.

Here’s a brief roundup of leaders who shared with DA how they’re prioritizing postsecondary outcomes for students:

  • Brigantine Public Schools, New Jersey: During the Future of Education Technology’s (FETC) latest webinar, Superintendent of Brigantine Schools Glenn Robbins shared with attendees how he’s leveraging an esports program to create postsecondary opportunities for student subgroups.
  • Wayzata High School, Minnesota: Principal Scott Gengler is reinventing their version of the “Portrait of a Graduate.” He challenges students and educators to think about the curriculum and the material they’re working through by asking, “What is it that you’re really doing, and what is it that you’re trying to help students learn and develop?”
  • Putnam County Schools, Florida: Florida’s 2023 Superintendent of the Year, Rick Surrency, improved graduation rates from 54.9% in 2015 to 92.5% in 2021, the largest increase in the entire state of Florida. While doing so, he’s been in the process of establishing several academies, including a construction academy to meet local economic needs and an advanced manufacturing academy that will support one of their largest employers.
Micah Ward
Micah Ward
Micah Ward is a District Administration staff writer. He recently earned his master’s degree in Journalism at the University of Alabama. He spent his time during graduate school working on his master’s thesis. He’s also a self-taught guitarist who loves playing folk-style music.

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