The Pandemic Has Changed College Dramatically

College student looking at laptop and smiling with CNBC logo in top right

What I Shared with CNBC: The Collegiate Experience Will Be VERY Different During the Pandemic and Possibly Much Longer

  • Campus life has been upended
  • Online classes will become more mainstream
  • Gen Z will look to minimize the cost of higher education


For many people, myself included, participating in a college experience was invaluable. Many people can recall their time being on campus, study groups at the library or in your dorm’s common area, and the unique environment of a large lecture hall or hands-on seminar. All of these experiences have been challenged or completely shuttered in recent months due to the pandemic.

Colleges and universities across the U.S. were forced to rapidly move to an online format or close completely this past March as they quickly tried to adapt to a situation most have never encountered before: a global pandemic. Now that the fall semester is on the horizon, colleges, students, faculty, parents, and college communities are trying to determine what higher education should look like in Fall 2020. In Austin, Texas, where I live and attended college, the conversation about the fall semester has become a hugely important topic.

As a generational researcher, I shared with CNBC the latest information from our research as it relates to Gen Z and their college experience in the time of the pandemic, and the future of learning. The timing of this story is particularly important for me as I have a new book all about Gen Z that is about to be released, Zconomy.

Campus Life and the Pandemic for Gen Z

It’s important to note that the CDC has offered guidelines for a return to “college life.” However, recent spikes in the COVID-19 infection rate, various risk and health profiles based on geography, and difficulties traveling both here and abroad make the many different policies and procedures being discussed a rapidly changing, challenging, emotional, and highly politicized must-solve project.

As I shared with CNBC, “The challenge is that we’ve seen very different responses to the current situation, from communities asking everyone to wear masks to other communities only 30 minutes away where very few people wear masks — and all these norms will collide together on campus.” Additionally, activities such as Greek Life, intramural sports, and dorm living will be greatly impacted, to say the least. All of this will have a ripple effect on families of students, faculty, communities, and the countless support staff, vendors, and more who are directly or indirectly impacted by higher education. This has an oversized impact in my home city of Austin, Texas, which is home to The University of Texas at Austin and several other great colleges.

What Will Universities Offer in the Fall?

Typically, colleges offer myriad class topics, extracurricular activities, on-campus restaurants and cafeterias, a variety of events and experiences (both small and large), and so much more. In these extraordinary times, universities are already moving away from traditional in-person activities and towards more virtual experiences—including campus tours—as the technology becomes both necessary and increasingly normalized. However, online education is not always ideal. It has many limitations, particularly when serving students who may not have Internet access and all of the various technological tools they need to be successful, a need for individualized instruction or group activities, as well as physical requirements for programs in science, art, music, and more.

As I shared with CNBC, “For as much as people complain about video chat and online platforms, the reality is these technologies have brought education, connection, and community to students’ homes around the world. It likely will be further integrated even when higher education eventually has the option to offer all classes in-person.”

Gen Z’s Frugalness Will Most Likely Have an Impact on the Price of Higher Learning

Our research at CGK has consistently shown that Gen Z is more fiscally aware than prior generations. Gen Z watched their parents struggle through the 2008 Great Recession. And now they have taken those experiences to heart in their own lives as they become more influential as employees, customers, trendsetters—and college students. It has led them to think more seriously about spending, saving, and money in general.

When it comes to choosing their collegiate path, we expect this behavior to be in full effect—and reinforced by their own families who are feeling the weight of record-setting job losses. As I shared on my video interview with CNBC, “What our research shows is that when it comes to money and paying for college/university relative to other career pathways, is that Gen Z is very fiscally conservative, meaning that they are more practical with their money. So, Gen Z went into this experience already trying to figure out, ‘how do I minimize the cost?’”.

I continued, “[Millennials] were told get into the best college you can, get loans, and it will all work out fine, and that’s been a huge headwind for my generation.” Jason knows this not only through the 65+ generational studies he and the team at CGK have led, but also because he is a Millennial!

What Can Parents, University Leaders, and All Leaders Do Now?

So many pandemic-related changes and challenges are occurring in higher education and those dependent on it (employers, communities, governments, and more). Leaders must have accurate, up-to-date data and insights about Gen Z so their organizations can effectively connect to, build relationships, and lead this up and coming generation as customers, employees, and trendsetters.

At CGK, we are always researching all aspects of how Gen Z interacts with their world and what leaders must know now. This includes de-mything how they think about the economy, work, money, brands, college, and much more. We provide these insights as part of our strategic advisory work, webinars, and virtual keynote presentations to help leaders gain and act on the research-based insights they need to make key strategic decisions.

Contact our friendly team here to discover how we can be your trusted generational resource during this time of rapid change and uncertainty.

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