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This Is Uncomfortable
Learning Curve

Meet Generation Z

Amy Scott Nov 17, 2014
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One sure sign that college application season is in full swing at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, outside of Washington, D.C.: Students are pouring in to the office of CollegeTracks, a program that helps students from low- and moderate-income families navigate the process.

The office is packed with students seeking help, because this generation of high school students has heard over and over again — from their parents, their teachers, their president — that college is a must.

“Nowadays you need a degree to get a good job,” says Daniel Roa, 17.

“It’s kind of something that everyone does now,” says Alexandra Haller, 18.

“That’s the extra step we need to fulfilling what we want to be when we’re older,” says Adam Mungani, 17.

These students — all seniors at Bethesda-Chevy Chase — are part of the first wave of Generation Z. If you haven’t even heard of Gen Z, don’t worry. Neither had they.

“I have no idea what that means,” says Haller, blond with pink lipstick and glasses. “The last generation?”

Gen Z Reality
42% expect to work for themselves in their career 11% of working Americans are self-employed
36% expect to pay for college mainly with scholarships or grants 59% of undergrads received grants in 2011
$100monthly student loan payment most students said was manageable $242average monthly student loan payment
29% consider a $100,000 annual salary rich 22% of Americans earn $100,000 or more annually
17% expect to pay for college mainly with student loans 67% of undergrads received loans in 2011

Source: Northeastern University

Gen Z, or the iGeneration as some have called it, refers to those born since roughly 1995. These are kids who have never known a world without the Internet and smartphones. And they’re just starting to hit college.

Marketplace teamed up with Northeastern University to survey the latest crop of college-bound teenagers, aged 16 to 19. About two-thirds of them plan to attend at least some college right out of high school.

The big question is how to pay for it. Two-thirds said they were “concerned” about being able to afford college. When I bring up the notion of loans, the students I talk to recoil.

“Last resort,” says Haller.

“It’s not worth the debt,” says Tamara King, 17, who has long hair and braces.

It’s no wonder they’re down on debt. The first wave of Gen Z watched their parents struggle through the recession. They saw older brothers and sisters graduate and not be able to get jobs.

“Didn’t the president just finish paying off his student debt, like, a year ago?” asks King.

Actually, it was like 10 years ago. But still.

“I mean he’s the president,” she says. “In the end, it was a good result, but I wouldn’t want that.”

So where will the money come from? Almost a quarter of the students surveyed said mainly from their parents. More than a third expect grants and academic scholarships to foot most of the bill. That may be unrealistic, says Heather O’Leary, who studies Gen Z as an analyst with the higher ed research and advisory firm Eduventures.

“Our research also has shown that students are expecting an inordinate amount of merit-based and need-based scholarships, even students whose families are coming from very high income levels,” she says.

Colleges are partly to blame for the false expectations, O’Leary says, because they set high tuition prices, then compete for students by offering them discounts in the form of financial aid.

“It also falls to parents who have been telling them from a very early age they’re all very special snowflakes and they should be recognized for that individuality,” she says.

The individuals I talked to don’t expect college to come easy. They plan to work, or to save money by starting at community college. What they do expect, just like most of the kids who took the survey, is for college to prepare them for careers. They want schools to offer courses in entrepreneurship and to build in practical experience through things like internships.

Tiffany King, Tamara’s twin sister, plans to complete as many internships as possible.

“Even if you graduate and you wave around, ‘Hey, I got my college degree,’ where’s your experience in that field?” King says.

Despite their worries, this is a confident bunch. A striking number of them — 42 percent — plan to work for themselves during their careers. That’s nearly four times the percentage of American workers who are self-employed.

Almost two-thirds expect to be better off financially than their parents. Mungani, the son of Somali immigrants who didn’t go to college, says his generation has time.

“Our economy now will change after we graduate college,” he says. “So just keep your head high and your hopes up that you can get a job.”

Not that these kids have the luxury worry much about life after college.

“I honestly can’t think that far, because I’m worried about getting into college,” says Haller.

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