Right off the bat, let’s dispense with the notion that we’re here to talk politics or dissect last week’s election — we’ll leave that to the experts (and amateurs) in just about every other corner of the internet. As higher education marketers, we’re interested in what we can learn from an event that’s held the headlines and attention of the nation and pollsters alike for the better part of the last two years.

What it says about the cultural climate, business opportunities, and — for those talented enough to read the tea leaves — the future of our clients’ industries. And in digging into the electoral insights gleaned from an unlikely demographic, we realized that the members of one audience segment are all but spelling out the ways to connect with them.

Higher education marketers charged with drumming up undergraduate admissions know we’re about to move on from Millennials — to a generation that Goldman Sachs argues is more important. Whether you call them Gen Z, Post-Millennials, or the iGeneration, the first members of this cohort, born in the late 1990s or early 2000s, are getting ready to head off to school. And while the majority of them aren’t able to vote yet, these teens have come of age in an era — and lived through an election — where the confluence of coverage saturation and their own digital fluency means that they’re more informed and opinionated than their predecessors.

Tapping into a welcome byproduct of the election cycle — rich polling data and plentiful trend pieces — we’ve extrapolated three lessons that higher ed marketers can learn from Gen Z’s political opinions:

Fiscally Conservative, Cautiously Optimistic

Seeing as the oldest members of this generation were still playground-bound when the United States entered a recession, it should come as no surprise that 84% of Gen Z identifies as fiscally moderate or conservative. Growing up in an era rife with layoffs, foreclosures, and weak returns has engendered feelings of insecurity that run counter to Millennials’ idealism. They’re less like than Millennials, Gen Xers, or Baby Boomers to believe the economy is headed in the right direction, but more confident in the “American Dream” than any other generation — 78% believe it’s still attainable.

So how will this affect their college decision-making process? The unique combination of frugality and optimism means that we need to reach the next crop of students with an appeal that makes not only an emotional connection, but a logical one as well. Placing an emphasis on ROI used to be a grad school marketing game, but it will prove crucial to this generation as well, both in terms of outcomes and the inherent value of education.

The good news is that this generation’s financial outlook means smart money habits, with 70% of Gen Z saying they would rather save money they’re given than spend it. And the even better news? Nearly 40% of those younger than 20 years old say they’d save that money for college. We just have to demonstrate that our institutions are a worthwhile investment to prepare this self-directed, solution-oriented generation to achieve that American Dream.

Digital is Now a Double-Edged Sword

As the first group to grow up in a fully-connected world — note the alternate moniker iGeneration — Gen Z are true digital natives. They turn first to the internet and social media for information, and are more comfortable seeking out the opinions of others and sharing their own online. Their dexterity in using these tools of mass communication as a platform and resource was borne out through their involvement in the election — disseminating information, supporting grassroots efforts, even creating memes — which allowed them to cast a sort of “digital ballot” before they were even able to vote.

But this kind of connection comes at a price — because they’re drinking from the information fire hose, Gen Z has a shorter attention span and a heightened awareness of brands and organizations utilizing social media as a marketing channel.

This means we need to hook them quickly — think about how to get your message across not only in a 10-second Snapchat, but in a one-second Instagram Boomerang gif. And even more importantly, we need to provide them with the information and content that matters to them. If we can’t hold their attention — or if they suspect they’re marketed to — they will not hesitate to move on.

Authenticity Above All Else

Gen Z has a trust problem, with only one in four expressing trust in our current elected officials. Combine that with the fact that only 47% — less than any other generation — believe that voting is important, and you have a troubling recipe for disillusion. And that disillusionment is liable to trickle down to other establishment institutions, including traditional colleges and universities.

This generation simply doesn’t trust institutions — so how can you can lead them to trust yours? Through the social currency most valuable to Gen Z —unfettered authenticity. Identify what makes your institution truly unique — and not just the characteristics you believe intersect with your prospects needs — and have some fun with it. Embrace your weaknesses too — the integrity it takes to engage in transparent conversations about your institution’s challenges and how to improve them will help earn this generation’s trust. In a world where prospects are receiving a million micro-targeted messages a minute, a college that has the confidence to just be themselves goes a long way.


Forge’s Education Marketing Group is exclusively focused on driving institutional reputation, an optimized enrollment funnel, and alumni engagement for colleges and universities. To learn more about Forge or our Education Marketing Group, email Jesse Strawbridge.