By: Kanuj Malhotra

Generation Z is currently in the throes of touring, applying for and selecting the college that’s best suited for their specific needs. Back to school is soon to have a new meaning for this generation – come fall, they will make one the largest decisions and investments they’ve ever committed to.

While some industry trends seem to indicate that the traditional 2-to-4-year college experience is dying (NPR reports that undergrad enrollment in the U.S. is down for the sixth straight year), Gen Z student studies say otherwise. Surveys conducted by College Insights found that 89 percent rated a college education as valuable, and 82 percent said they plan to go to college directly from high school. With deep digital roots, a natural sense of independence and an innate love for learning, it’s no surprise that Gen Z plans to continue their education toward earning a degree. So how can higher education institutions (HEI’s) prepare for this next wave of students to best serve their unique needs?

Today’s Higher Education Landscape

First, we need to examine the issues facing these students today. While a college degree continues to be viewed as a valuable investment, there are several challenges hindering students from successfully obtaining one. Consider the current landscape:

  • Only 19 percent of 4-year public university students complete their degree on time and on budget
  • On average, students rack up 136.5 credits toward bachelor’s degrees that require only 120, the advocacy organization Complete College America reports
  • One of every three switches majors, according to the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA
  • Americans owe over $1.48 trillion in student loan debt, spread out among about 44 million borrowers. That’s about $620 billion more than the total U.S. credit card debt. (Student Loan Hero)

Both students and universities would benefit from more effective, holistic solutions to address these evolving student needs.

What’s Contributing To Major Student Roadblocks?

Several factors have intensified the modern-day student struggle and continue to impact incoming classes. Resources to help students achieve their goals often are fragmented or dated; tuition and textbook prices have skyrocketed; and U.S. universities had, on average, one advisor for every 367 students last year, according to a survey by NACADA and the college-admissions testing company ACT. Academic counselors at community colleges are particularly challenged, typically handling 1,000 students each (according to MDRC, a nonprofit research organization).

To reverse these ballooning trends, solutions are needed to help make college more affordable and resources more accessible to students. And those solutions, to be most effective, should leverage emerging technologies to assist Gen Z in a way they already understand.

Over the past several decades, the digital revolution has paved the way for new tools, services and platforms that help streamline the college experience for faculty and students alike. For example, course material is always readily available for students online, communication streams have been enhanced and tutoring services are available on-demand. The next step? Integrating technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and predictive analytics into educational tools and services to help offset the remaining issues at hand.

Solution Case Study – Portland State University (PSU) Degree Planning Platform

HEI’s are quickly learning that more advanced digital services are needed to respond to current gaps in the higher education experience. Let’s take the graduation rate crisis, for example. Students have a tough time making — and adopting — a graduation plan that’s right for them. In fact, colleges and universities are spending nearly a billion dollars annually trying to provide more effective student support and planning tools. Unfortunately, the lack of smart and effective solutions means that many students don’t graduate, or they do so only after spending more time and money than intended.

To combat this issue directly and help alleviate academic advisors’ heavy workloads, PSU, in partnership with Barnes & Noble Education (BNED) is beta testing a degree mapping software that aims to help its incumbent and incoming Gen Z students navigate the pursuit of their degree, eliminate empty credits and save money.

This new degree planning solution for HEI’s, designed in partnership with BNED for universities nationwide, helps students understand their academic and financial options and chart a path to graduation. The tool allows students and advisors to compare different paths by program, credit pace, time to graduation and financial aid eligibility, and each plan is tailored to the individual student and his or her lifestyle.

The BNED solution also frees up advisors to be more effective in supporting students, a key component to the program. Students and advisors can focus less on the mechanical side of creating a plan and more on the human side — understanding where they want to go and the individual path that will work best for them.

With this new degree planning tool, PSU will better serve students and leverage valuable, limited human resources, ultimately improving retention and graduation rates.

Injecting New Technology Where It’s Needed Most

Leveraging technologies similar to PSU’s degree planning tool, HEI’s cannot only better understand the obstacles to graduation, but also employ next-generation solutions that will help alleviate those challenges. From advanced algorithms improving advisors’ efficiency to machine learning assessing student study habits to predictive analytics helping to manage student finances based on current workloads, the HEI technology landscape is rapidly expanding. The solutions and partners are out there – it’s time for HEI’s to invest in their future and harness these digital advancements for the success of incoming Gen Z students and beyond.

Kanuj Malhotra is President of Digital Student Solutions at Barnes & Noble Education, Inc. Mr. Malhotra leads the development and growth of the Company’s direct-to-student digital initiatives.

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