Gen Z High School Students Want and Will Pay for Practical Higher Ed Options, says College Savings Foundation 

May 3, 2022

13th annual survey of more than 1,000 young adults finds they are saving, paying and choosing the schools to get them to the careers they want 

Washington, DC (May 4) – Gen Z High School students are emerging from two years of disrupted schooling with a determination to choose and fund the higher education paths that will lead them to the jobs and careers they want. In a national survey of more than 1,000 seniors, juniors and sophomores, the College Savings Foundation (CSF) found that the majority are saving, working and intending to pay for part or all of their higher education. At the same time, they desire more pragmatic education options tied to real work experience and the possibility of finishing their requirements faster.

“Today’s high school students have their feet on the ground and their eyes on the future. They and their parents are saving for higher education, and in addition their family discussions are focused on their long-term career plans,” said Vivian Tsai, Chair of CSF, a leading nonprofit helping American families save for education. This is CSF’s 13th Annual Youth Survey sharing insights into the changing dynamics of young people looking at higher education.

In keeping with the fiscally-responsible reputation of Gen Z individuals, or “zoomers” born between 1995 – 2012, the survey respondents expressed their strong work, saving, and cost-cutting ethics. 90% of those surveyed had higher education plans.  Key findings:

  • 82% plan to work full- (23%) or part-time (59%) while attending higher ed; and 61% are already working to help cover costs.
  • 59% are saving for their higher education; and 72% of those have saved more than $1,000 (50% between $1,000-$5,000 and 22% more than $5,000).
  • 54% intend to pay for part (35%) or all (19%) of their higher education.
  • 21% said their families are using 529 education savings plans, including students (9%) and parents (12%). 
  • 66% plan on living at home.   

What the Perfect Higher Education Looks Like for Gen Zs

These Gen Z students desire practical higher ed outcomes. When asked how they would design their perfect higher education, “Classes based on practical work experience” was the top-ranked choice. The second-ranked choice was for classes with competency-based testing that could result in finishing their requirements sooner and cost less. The third-ranked answer was getting credit for actual work experience done in conjunction with the higher ed institution

Reflecting this preference for useful learning, 63% of all high schoolers think of Technical and Career Education or Apprenticeship Programs in the same way as they do college. This is the highest level in the survey’s history since this question has been asked. 28% of students know they can use 529s to fund Technical and Career Education.

Overall, students are headed to cost-effective options: 38% expect to go to Public College and 27% to Community College. In an interesting comparison, Technical and Career Education and Private College are evenly ranked as higher ed destinations, with 10% planning to go to Technical and Career schools, only slightly behind 12% to Private Colleges. 

A smaller percentage, 4%, plan to go into the Military and 1.5% to Apprenticeship Programs.

These trends are reinforced with the finding that 38% of students said they needed to change their higher ed choices due to costs. Of those, 41% are going to Community College, 25% to a state school, 13% to Technical and Career Education, 10% to work, and 6% to an Apprenticeship Program.

Along with high costs, students worry about student debt. 67% are concerned about it; and in a separate question, one-quarter (24%) of all respondents said they were changing their higher education choices because they “don’t want the debt.”

Students said that the primary way they will reduce reliance on student loans will be to save more money (21%), work while attending school (17%), attend a Community College (15%), an in-state school (12%), or live at home (12%), among a variety of answers.

The Role of Parents in Saving and Planning 

While independent thinking and acting, 78% of students have talked to their parents about funding their higher education. 41% of all students said the career path they want to follow is the number one topic with their parents.  

Parents are chipping in to help. 57% are saving, with 56% of them having saved more than $5,000.  Among savers, nearly a quarter (21%) are doing so primarily through 529 education savings plans.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted higher education plans for over one-quarter (28%) of students, with 30% of those planning to study closer to home, 27% starting at a Community College and transferring to a four-year school, 16% pursuing a trade or technical training, 15% taking a gap year, and 10% attending an online university.

In a ranking question about the importance of traditional colleges, the first-ranked response was that the career the student is pursuing requires more technical/theoretical and/or liberal arts courses that they can only get from a traditional higher ed institution. The second-ranked response was that traditional college will be a more valuable educational credential over the course of their lives; and the third-ranked response was that it will help create long-term friends and contacts for their future.

Other findings:

  • 22% are planning to take a gap year; and, of those, 65% are doing it to work.
  • 51% plan on receiving financial aid.
  • Only 23% plan to borrow, but an additional 41% say it’s possible.

College Savings Foundation’s survey of 1,007 high school students across the country was conducted through Survey Monkey with parental permission. The College Savings Foundation (CSF)is a Washington, D.C.- based not-for-profit organization helping American families achieve their education savings goals.