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Generation Z Views Traditional College Path as Old School

August 01, 2020

ECMC group study finds majority of high school students regard education as important to their future; just 23 percent believe a four-year college is the only path to a good job.

Amidst a global pandemic, American teenagers remain steadfast in their belief that higher education plays a key role in their future success; however, the paths they are planning to take after high school differ from previous generations.

In fact, more than half are open to something other than a four-year degree and 70 percent want to follow their own educational path.

The statistics were uncovered in two national surveys conducted by ECMC Group, a nonprofit corporation focused on helping students succeed, in partnership with VICE Media. The studies were conducted Feb. 25-March 2, 2020, and May 14-20, 2020—before and during the pandemic—and polled more than 2,200 high schoolers ages 14-18.

“This study shows that today’s students are incredibly resilient and resolute in their desire to forge their own path when it comes to education,” said Jeremy Wheaton, president and CEO of ECMC Group. “It also illustrates that they have a keen understanding of the need for skills-based training and lifelong learning, which are integral to succeeding now and in the future.”

The results are featured in a new “Question The Quo” campaign, developed by ECMC Group to empower students to learn about the various higher education options available and to take the career path that’s right for them.

Additional findings include:

  • Gen Z is concerned about student loan debt.
  • 64 percent worry about how they’ll pay for higher education¹
  • 56 percent expect the government to provide additional money to help pay off their loans¹
  • 46 percent expect companies to provide formal education that upgrades work-relevant skills¹

Gen Z’s confidence in their future remains strong.

  • 65 percent are confident in their personal future; only 21 percent are confident in the world’s future¹
  • 84 percent believe their job prospects are equal to or better than their parents’ generation¹

Gen Z puts passion over profits.

  • 87 percent define success in five years as having a job that matches their passions²
  • 67 percent said success will be defined by focusing on what they love, regardless of how much money they make¹
  • Only 30 percent said success will be defined by how much money they make¹

Gen Z knows skills matter.

  • 74 percent believe a skills-based education (e.g., trade skills, nursing, STEM, etc.) makes sense in today’s world¹
  • 59 percent said they will be learning throughout their lifetime through schooling, training, etc.²
  • 61 percent said the top place to learn is on the job; 63 percent said in a hands-on lab²

Gen Z has had a range of experiences with education during COVID-19.

  • 39 percent said coursework was less challenging with digital classes¹
  • 34 percent said coursework was more challenging with digital classes¹
  • 20 percent said coursework was the same with digital classes¹

Gen Z believes COVID-19 will impact the future of learning.

  • 58 percent believe education will suffer due to less time in the classroom¹
  • 50 percent believe we will see increased inequality in the future due to lack of technology access¹

As part of the campaign, ECMC Group is launching an online experience at that features data insights from the surveys and resources for learning more about the various educational paths.

¹According to the ECMC Group/VICE Media survey of 1,025 high school students conducted May 14-20, 2020.

²According to the ECMC Group/VICE Media survey of 1,177 high school students conducted Feb. 25-March 2, 2020.

Survey Methodology

ECMC Group, in partnership with VICE Media, conducted two national surveys. The first was conducted Feb. 25-March 2, 2020, and the second was conducted May 14-20, 2020. All survey responses are available in .CSV file format via Google Drive. In instances when questions were included in both surveys, the responses reflect results from the most recent survey, not a cumulative result from both surveys.

About ECMC Group

ECMC Group is a nonprofit corporation with a mission to help students succeed. Headquartered in Minneapolis, ECMC Group and its family of companies provide financial tools and services, nonprofit career education and funding for innovative programs to help students achieve their academic and professional goals.

To learn more, visit