Benchmark This!

Latest Trends Impacting Marketing and Higher Education
from Director of UPCEA's Center for Research and Strategy, Jim Fong

Beware Higher Education: Cancel Culture and Generation Z are Here to Stay

Generation Z, those ages 8 to 23, are 67 million strong and represent one in five U.S. residents.[i] Those approximately 14 to 23, the iGeneration, are a powerful and influential group and constitute more than half of Gen Z. iGen recently disrupted President Trump’s Tulsa rally through the use of TikTok. They, along with young Millennials, are also fueling much of the cancel culture phenomena that is spreading across the world. Generation Z and Millennials are less concerned about cancel culture because the result beyond protesting a brand, product or company is the destruction or dismantling of a known entity or tradition. What makes these young people so powerful? iGen and young Millennials are more organized on social media, have different values and are also more informed than other generations. Carrying this further, they have significant potential to disrupt not only the political process, but also higher education.

As a result of being a digital native and receiving their first mobile device by age 10, Generation Z understands money better than other generations. Boomers (those 56 to 72 years of age) and Generation X’ers (those 41 to 55) were borrowers when they needed more money. Those generations were more likely to take out loans and grew up without direct access to their banking accounts. Generation Z checks their balances daily. They check prices. They compare products and read reviews. With less wealth and resources, they truly understand return-on-investment much better than other generations. A 2018 study by XYZ University of 1,800 Generation Z’ers showed that almost two-thirds prefer financial stability over spending money on something they enjoy. Colleges and universities have to better understand the value equation as they price their products and services. More progressive or innovative institutions have started to design products, programs and services with Generation Z in mind, as opposed to delivering the same legacy services to them.

Chart showing share of adults from each generation who said certain events had a major impact on their worldviewGeneration Z in the U.S. is more diverse than other generations. Almost half (48%) of Generation Z are non-white, with one-in-four being Hispanic, 14% black, 6% Asian and 5% some other race or two or more races.[ii] They are also well informed and well connected, and they spend about three hours a day on a mobile device.[iii] As a result of their diversity, connectedness and also their upbringing (often raised by Gen X’ers and older Millennials), Generation Z is more environmentally, culturally and even politically connected. A 2019 survey by Morning Consult of 1,000 Gen Z’ers showed that mass shootings, the #MeToo movement and Black Lives Matter were more important to them than to other generations. In fact, it was not uncommon to find Gen Z’ers participating in BLM protests[iv] and voicing their concerns on Twitter or other social media. Greta Thunberg, the 17-year-old environmental activist, has over 4.1 million Twitter followers. Fifteen-year-old Claudia Conway, daughter of George and Kellyanne Conway, has become a major force for her generation and has over 180,000 Twitter followers in her short life on social media.

The voice of Generation Z needs to be heard in terms of redesigning higher education post-pandemic. This generation is experiencing higher education at a time when colleges and universities are creating short-term fixes in the hope of preserving enrollments for the Fall of 2020. They are hoping for a positive or at least acceptable outcome for students, knowing that the product they are delivering may not be optimal. However, if Generation Z rejects the offering and solutions made by these institutions to deliver education during a pandemic, they are likely to rebel and demand change. In addition to the yet unleashed power of Generation Z on higher education, administrators will also face the wrath of their parents. While Millennials were raised by “helicopter parents,” Generation Z is being raised by “bulldozer parents.” The relationship between a Gen Z’er and their parents is much stronger than any other generation. As a result, higher education really has two dominant audiences to serve.

With Gen Z parents being more involved and protective of their children than other generations, don’t be surprised if they opt out of sending their children to campus in the fall. As many wade through a majority of courses being online, colleges and university leaders need to consider redesigning the format for Gen Z’ers’ and employers’ long-term needs. A stackable credential model might be a stronger solution than an overpriced 120-credit win or lose bachelor’s degree.  A stackable model, if done correctly, should be like a series of Legos building off each other to get to the 120-credit model. The perfect stackable model would be rewarding Gen Z students for milestones and competencies earned along the way. Even if the student doesn’t complete the entire degree, they are at least recognized for the skills they acquired to that point. If one does not complete the bachelor’s degree, the current model assumes that they have not acquired any knowledge. In fact, they are often branded as a “college dropout,” regardless of whether they completed 10 credits or a 100.

“Well before COVID we were already starting to see a shift in higher education with an increasing interest in alternative credentials, but many institutions believed this might just be a passing trend and were hesitant to disrupt their traditional offerings. But based on what we know about Gen Z and a post-pandemic recovery, this trend isn’t going anywhere.”

 –Katharine H. Merritt, Director of Research & Strategy, Blackboard Inc. Marketing & Enrollment Solutions


One Possible Model for Higher Education Credentialing … A Stackable Approach[v]

A Model for the Future? A Stackable Credentials Pathway infographic

A new stackable model would recognize competencies gained, courses taken, badges and certificates earned, and possibly earning the grand prize of the degree. If Generation Z comes into power post-presidential election, they may disrupt higher education. While they lack the full economic power of Boomers and the growing influence of Millennials, they do have the power of cancel culture. This should not be underestimated, as Generation Z values the presence of influencers, their peers and their networks. While they have access to larger audiences on social media, they hold very tight influential power on their parents and closed but organized networks of friends. If higher education doesn’t start to rebuild around Generation Z post-pandemic, the word will get out. Some institutions may even get cancelled and cease to exist.




[ii] Pew Research Center, “On the Cusp of Adulthood and Facing an Uncertain Future: What We Know About Gen Z So Far,” K. Parker, R. Igielnik, May 14, 2020.


[iv] Forbes, “Gen Z Leads the Black Lives Matter Movement, On and Off Social Media,” R. Bellan, June 12, 2020.

[v] UPCEA, “Faster Forward to a New Economy and Implications for Higher Education,” Presentation. J. Fong, August 6, 2020.

Jim Fong, UPCEA

Lead consultant Jim Fong, the founding director of UPCEA’s Center for Research and Strategy, has extensive background in marketing at Penn State, as well as experience in private industry. Jim brings a rich understanding of the dynamics driving today’s higher education leaders, providing research-driven strategy and positioning. Jim often presents at UPCEA’s regional and national conferences, sharing vital information with attendees.

Whether you need benchmarking studies, or market research for a new program, UPCEA Consulting is the right choice.

We know you. We know the challenges you face and we have the solutions you need. We speak your language and have been serving leaders like you for more than 100 years. UPCEA consultants are current or former continuing and online higher education professionals who are experts in the industry—put our expertise to work for you.

Data that tells your story.

Whether you need to assess the viability of a new program, find out how you stack up with the competition or would like a program portfolio review, we can assist with research and data that will help move your unit forward. Your decisions impact the quality of your operation, as well as the bottom line. We’ll provide data that does more than sit on a page—it’s data that tells the story.

The UPCEA Center for Research and Strategy offers a variety of custom research options through a variable pricing model.

Click here to learn more.

Other UPCEA Updates + Blogs

[Webinar Recording] Beyond Self-Care – Mental Health in Times of COVID

The COVID-19 pandemic placed enormous stress on all aspects of the educational system. Technological and human resources were required to adopt at lighting speed in order to maintain continuity of delivery. One aspect that was especially stressed and often overlooked was the mental health and well-being of all participants, administrators, faculty, and students alike. This…

Read More

A 2021 Outlook for Professional, Continuing and Online Education

At the turn of the Millennium, institutions of higher education placed all of their chips on red by modernizing dorms, integrating technology into the classroom, digitizing their libraries, building out campus WiFi, and adding amenities such as state-of-the-art fitness centers and progressive dining halls. Many built dorms with greater perks and luxuries. Once the competition…

Read More

Policy Matters | New COVID Relief Bill Passes with Higher Education Support; Biden Picks Secretary of Education Nominee (December 2020)

Major Updates New COVID Relief Bill Passes with $23B Emergency Support for Higher Education; Includes Broadband Support, FAFSA Simplification and Federal Aid Eligibility for Incarcerated Students Following months of inaction, Congress has passed a massive COVID relief package, attached to the spending bill which averted a government shutdown. While UPCEA and others have argued that the…

Read More

2020 UPCEA Marketing and Enrollment Award Recipients Announced

20 Recipients Chosen For Special 2020 Awards WASHINGTON, D.C., December 7, 2020 — UPCEA, the leader in professional, continuing, and online education, has announced the recipients of the 2020 Excellence in Enrollment Management Award and the 2020 UPCEA Crisis Management Marketing Award. In light of the challenges facing UPCEA members, who are leading their institutions…

Read More

In Memoriam: Keith Bailey

Long-time UPCEA member and colleague Keith Bailey (1970-2020) passed away in early December 2020. Dr. Bailey served as Assistant Provost for Teaching and Learning and Dean of WVU Online at West Virginia University. In this role, he oversaw the day-to-day operations of both WVU Online and the University’s Teaching and Learning Commons. Dr. Bailey previously…

Read More

Embedding Industry Certifications into Bachelor’s Degrees: New Framework Now Available

Report Provides Guidance to Universities and Certification Bodies to Explore Certification-Degree Pathways December 1, 2020 – A new framework to support the development and scaling of certification-degree pathways has been published today by Workcred – an affiliate of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) – in partnership with the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU),…

Read More

The Nation's Top Universities Choose UPCEA Consulting

Informed decisions. Ideas that work. The data you need. Trusted by the top universities in the nation.