Big Ideas Higher Education

University 5.0

Students walking around a college campus

By Sean Carton \ April 6, 2017

If you understand the reality of higher education today, then you’re willing to take the leap to the stage we like to call “University 5.0.”

Why “5.0?” Because we believe that we’re at the cusp of another great change in the state of higher education. It’s a path that’s spanned centuries, moving from:

  • a focus on the elite (1.0); to
  • a humanistic understanding that the Industrial Revolution necessitated a change in education (2.0); to
  • the increased value of driving innovation and economic progress after World War II (3.0); to
  • the role of education as facilitating social change in the 1960’s and ‘70’s (4.0); to
  • a realization that higher education needs to address the new realities of globalization, cultural change, and telecommunication technologies in the modern age (5.0).

Higher education is in flux.

We’re caught in a world where the humanistic values of the Enlightenment (and the transmission of those values through education) are under assault. Yet, at the same time, we recognize that education drives the New Economy, fosters new knowledge development, contributes innovations, and prepares a workforce to succeed in such a world.

The institution is also subject to shifts in cultural and demographic forces. Culturally, the Great Recession of the late 2000’s, coupled with the popular understanding of the role student debt plays in our economy has, for the first time, soured the brand of higher education. Critics abound, from Forbes publishing, “If There’s One Thing Millennials Regret, It’s Going To College,[1]” to our former President – known to be a champion of education – belittling the liberal arts tradition[2].

Demographics are against us too. Over the past three fall semesters, college enrollments are down[3] across the board. In New York, the state’s decline in enrollment between the 2015 and 2016 has been significantly higher than the national average[4].

Things look pretty bleak.

These kids – aged 7 to 23 as we write this – are different from previous generations. Today’s college-bound population never knew a time before the Internet and grew up in a post 9/11 world that didn’t exude the Gen X angst of their parents. Generation Z differs from Millennials as much as Generation X differs from their Baby Boomer parents.

Generation Z believes in grit.

They’re worried about the future and believe that they’re going to have to work harder than those who came before them.[5] They also want to outwork their peers.[6] As part of that drive, they recognize that they have to gain “real world” experience through volunteering.[7] Generation Z also believes that actions have real consequences. 93% believe it’s important to consider the social impact of the companies where they choose to work.[8] And, because of this belief, 60% of them want their work to have an impact on the world.[9]

That might be why they also feel remarkably connected. 60% say that they like to share their knowledge with others online[10] and 64% say they contribute to websites. This feeling of collaboration and connection extends to their interactions with brands too: 34% want brands to connect to them via social media; 33% want connections via email; and 28% want to connect to brands via online ads, according to advertising giant J. Walter Thompson. This feeling of connectedness extends to all aspects of their lives, manifesting itself strongest in their relationship with technology. 75% of Gen Zers feel that their online experiences will help them achieve their personal goals; and 66% reported that technology makes them feel that “anything is possible.”[11]

While they may dream of the possibilities, Gen Z seems much more pragmatic than Millennials. According to a study by research group Deep Focus, 63% of Gen Zers want to see “real people” rather than “celebrities” in their advertising.[12] And more than half believe that honesty is an essential quality in a good leader.[13] They also believe that work/life balance is one of the most important factors in their future careers.[14]

Finally – and possibly because of their pragmatic natures – the Gen Z cohort is very conscious of the value of money. More than 50% self-identify as “deal hunters,”[15] and more than three quarters would rather save money than spend it.[16] But when they do spend it, they want something to show for it: 60% want a “cool product” rather than a “cool experience” from their purchases (compared to 40% of Millennials).[17]

There’s no doubt about it: the next generation of college students is going to challenge many of the assumptions marketers developed over the past couple Millennial decades. In order to meet these challenges, institutions of higher learning have to adopt what we believe are the core characteristics of “University 5.0.”

The university of the future must be:

  • Accountable: In order to remain competitive, institutions of higher learning will have to be ready to account for their decisions to a wide range of stakeholders.
  • Value-Oriented: Increasing economic pressures and Gen Z’s value orientation means schools will have to be able to prove that they’re worth their sticker price.
  • Interactive: One-way communication isn’t going to cut it anymore. There is no patience for long-winded answers and obfuscation. Schools have to be ready to react at a moment’s notice.
  • Reality-Based. Generation Z is pragmatic. Schools better prove why they’re the best choice.
  • Flexible. Change defines the 21st. Institutions of higher learning must adapt along with the populations they serve.
  • Personal. “One size fits all” isn’t a concept that Generation Z – or, increasingly, anyone else – understands. An orientation towards personalization isn’t necessarily about selfishness. Today’s prospective students expect a real connection with everyone who interacts with them.





[4] New York decline in enrollments between 2015 and 2016 is 2.70%, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research enter, 0.32% above the standard deviation in enrollment change of 2.38%














Sean Carton
VP of Growth + Innovation
Sean Carton
VP of Growth + Innovation

Sean leads our Discover360 engagements, gathering data and research to develop the insights necessary for crafting effective strategies for our clients. He has a perfectly varied background for our higher education and nonprofit partners: He’s served as everything from a dean to an adjunct professor to the co-director of a high school cybersecurity summer camp to the leader of a university 3D printing lab. Sean also has an uncanny talent for creating the perfect meme faster than you can search for one.