Higher ed enrollment marketers have had their sights set on Millennials for a while now. But it’s time to change your strategy to reach Gen Z prospective students.

According to William Strauss and Neil Howe, authors of Millennials Rising, Millennials are anyone born from 1981 to 2004. Others, like the Pew Research Center and Ernst & Young define Millennials as those born between 1981 and 1996.

Either way you slice it, you get the picture.

Millennials are those who have one foot in the passing analog world and one in the new digital world.

Older Millennials remember when phones were on walls and had cords.

They remember having to wait for their favorite program to come on TV.

They remember the horror of realizing their favorite album was too scratched up to play in their CD player.

But while these nostalgic characteristics of Millennials are fun to think about, education and enrollment marketers really didn’t have to focus on that.

The truly important thing for education marketing was Millennials’ psychographics, the way they view themselves and the world.

The World of Millennials

Millennials grew up in a positive and growing economy and have an incredibly high amount of buying power.

However, their risk tolerance was curbed by events like the 9-11 terrorist attack and the 2008 recession.

When Millennials started coming of age, technology had gotten to the point where the costs of starting a business, especially online, were becoming much more accessible by more people.

So between all of these factors, Millennials started the trend towards a location-independent, freelance-style economy.

This is often called the “gig economy,” because the work centers more around the current “gig” than on a career with a certain employer.

Millennials also tend to have a positive outlook on life, focusing on areas of social justice and advocacy.

They’ve become accustomed to a 24 hour news cycle, and this fuels their view of the world.

Marketing to Millennials

Once education marketers realized in the early 2000’s that we were marketing to a new generation – Millennials – we began to change our messaging strategy to fit their way of seeing and interacting with the world.

We started to create digital strategies that would get our marketing messages where they were hanging out.

We began doubling down on content marketing, knowing that they were more likely to trust brands that answered their questions rather than simply shouting at them with ads.

All of this was good, and brought in great results. We see that these strategies will continue to be successful.

But education and enrollment marketing will now have to shift again as we meet the next wave of prospective students – Gen Z.

Meet the New Prospective Student, Gen Z

According to many sociologists, Generation Z or “iGen,” were born after 2001. 

So that means anyone 18 or younger (as of the date of this article in 2019) could be considered Gen Z.

We’ve already seen that content marketing works very well with this young marketing persona, especially when done through authentic channels like live video and email video channels like BombBomb.

But a recent study, analyzed here by Bloomberg, just came out that brings to light some new information I feel is very important for education and enrollment marketers.

There are fewer prospective students than before.

You’ll probably hear in the years to come that Gen Z has surpassed Millennials in number.

Be careful with this statistic.

It makes you think that you’ll have more students to market to, and therefore, more students who will enroll at the end of your enrollment funnel.

But Gen Z outnumber Millennials globally – not nationally!

Here’s where they’re getting this idea of a generation boom though. Gen Z now takes up 32% of the world population according to UN statistics.

But that’s referring to world-wide population, which probably does not affect you as an enrollment marketer so much.

In the study, Bloomberg points out the fact that in the largest economies, this global figure doesn’t reflect the market reality.

“Millennials will continue to represent the bigger proportion in the world’s four largest economies: U.S., China, Japan and Germany. The combined population just shy of 2 billion in those four countries will have a ratio of 100 millennials for every 73 in Gen Z next year.” – Bloomberg

The ratio of Millennials to Gen Z is going to present a massive challenge to higher education enrollment in the future.

If there are “100 millennials for every 73 in Gen Z,” that means there are fewer prospective students to market to.

And if you have fewer people to market to, you’ll have fewer people who’ll end up enrolling in your private college, university, or independent school.

I don’t want to scare anyone. That’s not the point of this article.

There’s no end date on this generation yet, which means there’s a slight possibility that things could change in unexpected ways.

But these trends have enough time and data behind them that it’s fairly well set.

So if these statistics remain true, it means that many education brands will struggle over the next ten to twenty years with low enrollment numbers.

In the coming years, enrollment will not only be affected by a school’s level of marketing savvy, it will be hit hard by sheer mathematics.

At this point, there are and will be fewer people in the higher education student market than there has been in the last two to three generations.

And that will most likely affect enrollment numbers no matter what you do.

While I hope the data changes, as it stands, educational institutions must prepare for this unavoidable reality. 

While you still have the resources to invest, put your efforts into low-cost, high-results strategies like inbound, content marketing. 

Gen Z’s self-reliance will affect their relationship with education institutions.

You might have seen this coming with younger Millennials and their general distrust of established institutions.

This is what has sparked a real entrepreneurial spirit in a lot of Millennials.

For example, a higher percentage of Millennials are choosing to start a business or go freelance than Baby Boomers or Gen X’ers.

But Gen Z takes this self-reliance to a whole new level.

Millennials were introduced to Google and other search engines when these online site indices were in their infancy.

You had to physically go to a computer workstation, turn it on, navigate to the search engine, and type in your question.

Contrast that with today.

Prospective students in Gen Z are growing up with search engines as their personal virtual librarians.

Many of them will be growing up asking Google Assistant and Alexa for answers to their questions.

Beyond the rise of voice-activated search and 24 hour connectivity, Gen Z prospective students are growing up in a world where self-directed, online learning is becoming more popular… and offers a  better quality learning experience.

Online, paid courses like MasterClass, Teachable, Udemy, and Skillshare are innovative education platforms that are shaping how Gen Z students understand the learning process.

Sure, these aren’t academically equivalent to a private college or university education – but they will form the expectations of prospective students to come.

Online courses and constant connectivity to virtual assistants are creating a culture of self-reliance in Gen Z prospective students.

In a report by Ernst & Young LLP, Marcy Merriman, one of EY’s executive directors, stated that while Millennials “looked to others, such as the companies they did business with, for solutions,” Gen Z “naturally sought to create their own solutions.”

What does that mean for education and enrollment marketers?

It means that Gen Z prospective students will look less and less to your educational institution as the authority on anything.

They will no longer automatically look to your education brand to guide them as they “naturally” go about creating “their own solutions” for their career, calling, or job training.

Content Marketing is KEY

Education brands that use quality content will be able to establish their authority and attract students through search engine optimization – which is getting more and more favorable to good content.

You can leverage Gen Z’s self-reliant bent by publishing content that seeks to answer prospective students’ questions about the issues that your education brand is known for.

When a Gen Z prospective student asks his or her Google Assistant a question, you’ll be more likely to show up in the results if you’re consistently publishing content to answer those questions.

Now your brand authority is backed up by the quality of your content and your search engine ranking rather than your historical prestige.

If trends continue as they are, prestige will become less and less of an attraction for Gen Z prospective students.

They’re looking for a brand that will help them solve their own problems.

Utility and helpfulness will be the trademarks of successful education marketing to Gen Z.

Here to Help

To sum up the two data-based characteristics we see in Gen Z:

  • There will be fewer prospective students to market to in the immediate future.
  • Current and future prospective students are looking for helpful tools to create their own life solutions, as opposed to sage guides telling them how to do it.

Because of these new studies, I’m passionate about preparing private educational institutions for the future of education marketing.

If you need any help navigating these new waters, we’re here to help.


Market More. Spend Less.

Set yourself free from your shrinking marketing budget with my new ebook Marketing on a Shoestring Budget! This ebook is jammed with practical ways to produce high-quality marketing on the cheap.

shoestring budget ebookInside, I’ll show you proven marketing tactics like…

  • How to leverage low-cost technologies to reach your target market,
  • How to craft a content marketing strategy on a bare-bones budget,
  • The number one thing your website needs to do,
  • The key to getting free, organic traffic to your website, and more.

No hype. No pie in the sky. Just real solutions for getting the job done with the budget you’ve got.

Download your copy today!

Featured image by Jackfrog via Adobe Stock