Generation Z Goes to College: An Interview with the Author

Generation Z Goes to College: An Interview with the Author

Emily Siegel

Associate Director, Office of Research & Strategic Initiatives, Campus Labs

The Learn Forward team was excited to sit down this week with Dr. Corey Seemiller, co-author of the newly released book, Generation Z Goes to College. Dr. Seemiller shares with us some fascinating insights from her research on the latest generation of upcoming and current college students, as well as some best practices for higher education professionals.

Dr. Seemiller, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with Learn Forward today. I'm particularly excited about this topic as it's so relevant to our current work with college students. Can you tell me more about what got you interested in writing a book about Generation Z?

During the summer of 2013, I was planning a staff training for our leadership programs team and had come across information online that we were in the midst of transitioning to a post-Millennial generation. I remembered when Millennials came to college and how different they were compared to Generation X. So, I thought that we should get ahead of the curve in understanding this generation in terms of their styles, preferences, and needs in offering our leadership programs. We discussed how we could be more inclusive of this group, shift elements of our programs, and simply just be mentally prepared for their arrival to college.

Such a great idea, but I imagine the research was few and far between. How much information was available at the time about Generation Z?

That was the tough part. Because the oldest of them were just entering college in Fall of 2013, there was no research available on them as college students. So, I was able to find information using studies mostly from market research and tried to translate that into what to expect from them in a college setting.

So, how did your study ultimately come about?

During that semester, I wanted to present information about Generation Z to a wider audience at my institution. So, Meghan Grace, who was one of my colleagues at the time, jumped on board and developed a presentation with me. But, we knew right away that if we wanted to learn about Generation Z as college students, we would need to conduct a study on our own as the market research alone wasn’t going to provide us all the information we needed. So, basically we were curious.

Curiosity can definitely lead us to some great discoveries. Tell us about your study, in particular.

So, in the summer of 2014, we submitted our IRB packet, got 15 schools to sign on, and we were off and running. We put together a survey that included both quantitative and open-ended questions so we could get both a snapshot of the participants as a whole but supplement that with their stories. We asked questions about beliefs, characteristics, learning styles, communication preferences, social media use, community engagement, leadership, and relationships.

That sounds really comprehensive. Is your book based solely on your research findings?

We began to put together the framework of the book based on our research categories but knew that we needed to supplement and in some cases, validate, our findings with other research. By this time, a year had passed since our initial Generation Z presentation and there was more research available. We tapped back into market research, integrated adolescent research about Generation Z that was conducted in their latter years of high school, gathered polling data from groups like Pew and Gallup, as well as analyzed two key pieces of higher education research. First, Northeastern University had conducted a study on Generation Z in the fall of 2014, the same time we were conducting our study. We included many of their findings in the book, especially since they aligned quite well with our findings. In addition, we worked with the Higher Education Research Institute to obtain the CIRP findings for the Fall 2014 first-year student cohort disaggregated only to Generation Z students, totaling a sample of more than 150,000 students, which was nationally normed. All of this research provided great insight for us to draw some initial conclusions about what to expect of Generation Z in college.

Was there anything that you learned about Generation Z that you weren’t expecting?

Because we had done some research on Generation Z prior to our study, we had some ideas of what to expect, especially around technology use. We knew this generation was glued to their phones and that they grew up post-9/11 during a recession. But, the details really came in conducting our study and writing the book. We knew Generation Z was different than the Millennial generation, but we had no idea they were so different. That was probably the most surprising.

Fascinating. So, how are they different from Millennials?

Generation Z is more pragmatic and realistic than Millennials. They identify as responsible and loyal and will likely see tough situations through until the end as they have watched others do during their childhood. Millennials grew up in a time of more prosperity; we were not at war, the Internet was just invented, and we had a budget surplus for the government. So, they believed that graduating from college meant a guaranteed job. And, if they weren’t happy in that job, they might move on to the next. And, the reality was for earlier Millennials that they were getting jobs out of college. Generation Z knows they will be lucky to get a job and will likely stay in their jobs for longer periods of time.

In addition, their technology use is different. Millennials love social media and spend countless hours chronicling their lives on Facebook. Generation Z is much more private. Although they are on social media, they prefer to follow rather than post. They are on Instagram and Twitter for following others, yet love short-term social media like Snapchat for posting so that there is no trail left behind.

You didn’t mention Facebook. Are they using it too?

They use Facebook for particular purposes, mostly to keep in touch with Grandma. They are not necessarily connecting with friends through Facebook as they believe that adults have infiltrated that platform. So, they have gone to other places and will continue to move as adults try to enter those spaces as well.

What are some key ideas from your book that you can share?

We found that even though Generation Z students seem to be glued to their phones, they prefer face-to-face communication over texting, email, and phone calls. This was surprising given the assumption that because they appear to text so much that face-to-face communication is going away for this generation. But, with more options to connect outside of face-to-face available, we may be stripping this generation of the opportunity to connect and communicate in ways they want. Shop on Amazon rather than at a store, check yourself out at the grocery store rather than talk to a cashier, bank online, and take online classes rather than meeting in person; these are just some ways that our society is shifting to less face-to-face communication. But, it isn’t necessarily what Generation Z prefers. They, like other generations, are going to have to find their face-to-face communication other places.

Another interesting finding is that Generation Z prefers self-reflective and independent work over group work and team projects. Getting students into groups seems to be our go-to in higher education. “Break up into groups and discuss…,” “Work with your team to do …” Not that group work isn’t productive, useful, and can help them prepare for doing group work in their jobs post-college, it is just that it is a method used all the time. Generation Z students want more time to individually reflect on a topic before discussing with a group or a chance to write their own papers rather than doing a group project so frequently. So, maybe a better balance between individual and group work, in the curricular and co-curricular, might better serve these students.

What recommendations do you have for better engaging them in co-curricular experiences?

Two things stand out to me. First, consider your content delivery. If you have a workshop on clarifying your values but it isn’t until next week, why would a student wait until then to get that information? There are likely hundreds, if not thousands, of websites, videos, blogs, and forums on values clarification alone on the Internet. Students can look that up now and learn more information than any one workshop facilitator could possess. So, instead of competing with the information that is online, use it to your advantage. Maybe design a workshop that students come to that is more like a learning laboratory where they can practice instead of hear information for the first time. Provide a list of recommended websites, videos, podcasts, etc. that students can check out ahead of time and then just use the time in the workshop for face-to-face for application.

Second, this is a generation deeply connected to social justice and social change. They aim to solve the world’s problems and have a we-, not me-, centric view of change. So, marketing your programs and involvement opportunities as about making a difference rather than developing your personal skills or building your resume would appeal much more to these students. They want to know that the precious time they will be spending out of class is making a difference in the lives of others. But, it is more than marketing. If it isn’t already integrated into your programs and opportunities, add an element of social justice or social change. Give these students the resources and opportunities to make a difference.

Thank you for sharing with us all of these valuable insights about Generation Z. Do you have any last thoughts you'd like to share with our readers?

I would say that Generation Z is already in college, and more of the higher education demographic will be leaning towards Generation Z in the upcoming years. Either we learn now how to best educate, develop, and connect with them or we will end up wondering why they are not showing up to events, participating in programs, getting involved in our organizations, or coming to college at all.

Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today and share your insights with the Learn Forward community. You have definitely expanded my understanding of Generation Z and I am excited to learn more!

Generation Z Goes to College is available TODAY on Amazon and check out for more information.

More about the author: Dr. Corey Seemiller has worked as a leadership educator for higher education, K-12, non-profits, military, and in the community for the past 20 years. She currently serves as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Leadership Studies in Education and Organizations at Wright State University teaching undergraduate courses in organizational leadership and graduate courses in leadership development. Prior to her role as a faculty member at Wright State University, Dr. Seemiller served as the Director of Leadership Programs and adjunct faculty/coordinator for the Minor in Leadership Studies and Practice at the University of Arizona and the Director of Leadership, Learning, and Assessment at OrgSync, Inc. Dr. Seemiller publishes and presents nationally and internationally on issues related to leadership. She is the author of The Student Leadership Competencies Guidebook and associated tools to help educators develop intentional curriculum that enhances leadership competency development, and her newly released book, Generation Z Goes to College, aims to prepare college educators to best serve and develop Generation Z students. Dr. Seemiller served as the 2014 and 2015 Co-Chair for the National Leadership Symposium and 2015 Co-Chair of the Leadership Education Academy.

Emily Siegel

Associate Director, Office of Research & Strategic Initiatives, Campus Labs

Dallas, TX