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Make Way for Gen Z

December 2019

By Judith Flink and Charmaine Daniels

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Business offices need to understand and deliver on the expectations of this young generational cohort to secure its loyalty and trust.

Born in the mid-1990s through the mid-2000s, Generation Z is now the dominant generation among students on college and university campuses. Business offices looking to meet this generation’s needs must first reaffirm their school’s mission of providing transparent information about college costs and a variety of accessible payment options to students and their parents. In order to help achieve this, business offices need to develop the necessary services and channels.

Research, reinforced by our own decades of experience in business offices at various institutions, has highlighted the generational expectations that make these new services and channels so vital. Knowing that business offices are often asked to do more with less, however, there are several options that are more cost-effective while also being less time-consuming.

Getting to Know Gen Z

The first generation to grow up entirely in the digital age, these young people have always had instantaneous access to the information they’ve sought. Communication, too, has always been immediate, leading Gen Z students to expect the information they need via whichever channel they prefer without having to wait. It’s not surprising, then, that this generation expects faster customer service than any other demographic, with 18- to 24-year-olds being 60 percent more likely than the average consumer to hang up if a business doesn’t answer the phone right away.

These high expectations may indicate a certain impatience, but they also reveal that young people today take a proactive interest in finding the answers for themselves. This generation is more willing than most to search for an answer, trying out several different avenues (websites, peers, and even direct phone calls) in order to get it. A logical and prominent FAQ webpage is one simple but effective way to capitalize on this generational characteristic.

Yet, Gen Zers are more than just their appetite for information. Coming of age after the Great Recession, they actually most resemble an earlier generation that grew up in a similar time of economic uncertainty: the silent generation, that demographic cohort that immediately followed the so-called Greatest Generation. Like their silent generation predecessors, Gen Zers value financial stability and are happy to put in the hard work to obtain it. They grew up seeing the adults in their lives grapple with home foreclosures and job losses, and they have responded by becoming both more entrepreneurial and more pragmatic. According to a New York Times analysis on colleges’ responses to Gen Z, these students “are a frugal but ambitious lot, less excited by climbing walls and en suite kitchens than by career development. Most critically, they expect to be treated as individuals.”

Roles for the Business Office

In terms of the business office, treating people as individuals means reaching people where they are, with the information they need, in a way they understand. And, this type of targeted communication requires two levels of insight: (1) understanding the new generational characteristics of the student body; and (2) knowing where each individual student is in terms of enrollment, payment, and other meaningful milestones such as credit hours. The latter is now being achieved at institutions that have imported best practices from other industries.

Some colleges, for example, have taken a page from the retail sector and implemented a customer relationship management (CRM) system that can be accessed by any functional department across the institution. Often, this type of system is already being used by the admissions office for recruitment purposes, so extending it across the educational life cycle can be a relatively easy process.

A comprehensive CRM system gives the business office access to a central record that includes real-time information about where students are in both the enrollment and billing cycles, reassuring students that their particular situation and specific needs are being recognized. It can also help prevent confusion and unnecessarily repetitive interactions, which younger students see as antiquated as well as irritating.

These new systems can, and should, directly increase student satisfaction. Institutions can also mine these systems to uncover recurrent questions or typical pain points. For example, which deadlines seem most difficult for students? What questions are students asking the most? Where are they going for answers? To provide excellent customer service, schools have to do more than just respond to student needs—they have to anticipate them.

Emphasizing Value

Tailored communication and up-to-date customer service are vital as higher education institutions serve students from Gen Z. And, making these qualities apparent to prospective Gen Z students—who are more value-minded and debt averse than their millennial and Gen X predecessors—must be a priority as well.

More than earlier generations, today’s prospective students are evaluating institutions and degrees in terms of earning potential. With the average student borrowing $28,650 for a traditional bachelor’s degree and average post-college debt at about $30,000, as reported in Student Debt and the Class of 2017 from the Institute for College Access & Success, this scrutiny is certainly warranted. Gen Z students understand that their choice of school and financial aid package will greatly impact the choices they’re able to make after they graduate. In the cases of students who drop out before getting their degree—amounting to 45 percent of students enrolled in four-year private, nonprofit colleges, as noted in the Third Way report Incomplete: The Quality Crisis at America’s Private, Non-Profit Colleges by Tamara Hiler and Lanae Erickson—their debt and lack of a degree can be disastrous.

This state of affairs can be traced in part to the “new normal” in American higher education: Tuition is on the rise while some forms of traditionally relied-upon financial aid remain flat or are declining, even as institutional aid may be increasing at more colleges and universities. The uncertainty about funding sources not only creates confusion but may also result in significant funding gaps for more students.

To bridge this funding gap, colleges and universities must seek ways to help students limit borrowing while enabling continued enrollment. The “blended service” model is one way business offices are improving retention rates while making tuition payment more affordable and manageable for Gen Z students and their families.

One of the ways that blended service makes the payment process easier and more affordable is by offering students tailored payment plans, which they can adapt to meet their individual needs—by allowing payments from other sources, for instance, or extending the payment plan term. These plans can respond to Gen Z’s focus on affordability in other ways, too, by providing estimated tuition calculations, for instance, or by enabling students to select from a wider range of terms and amounts than otherwise would be offered. Many of these capabilities can either be automated or performed by the student, thus meeting Gen Z’s preference for multichannel, 24/7 access and consumer control. One subsequent benefit of blended service is that it has the potential to free up valuable staff time, allowing customer service representatives to focus on more complex or difficult cases.

Finally, no matter the system, business offices need ways to flag students before they are in danger of defaulting on their loans so that the business office can intervene with specialized payment plans or other means of assistance. The costs of not doing so are high, both to the institution’s reputation (e.g., national report cards assessing graduation rates) and to its bottom line. After all, it is far more expensive to recruit a new student than to sustain an existing one.

A Continuum of Service

We now have five generations in the workforce together. While embracing technology is simply nonnegotiable in terms of serving the current (and future) student population, successful business offices will take advantage of the specific strengths of all their employees.

Toward this end, “layering” offerings is key. By seeking to match employees’ skills to students’ needs, business office leaders can cover all communication channels, from calls on the telephone to posts on Snapchat. After all, the goal is to get parents and students the information they need to make informed decisions about affordability and fit, so focusing only on channels and language favored by Gen Z is simply too narrow an approach. Furthermore, while traditional forms of communication such as paper-based mailings are certainly less prevalent today, they shouldn’t be completely discarded. Most of us conduct the majority of our communications electronically, which can make these paper-based deliveries even more impactful.

Building a Positive, Lasting Relationship

More than any generation before it, Gen Z is likely to directly compare the value of one institution’s degree to another’s before deciding where to study. The responsiveness and orientation of a school’s financial aid and business offices can be a significant factor in that determination. Showing genuine concern for students’ ability to pay—on terms that are manageable for them and their families—sets an institution apart from the competition and can foster stronger alumni relations and increase the trustworthiness of an institution’s brand. A blended, responsive approach also helps the progression and graduation rates of existing students by removing unnecessary financial obstacles and making it as easy and intuitive as possible for them to fund their education.

Colleges and universities are mission-driven to graduate their students, yet this mission has been difficult to achieve for a number of reasons. Business offices can minimize or eliminate some of these reasons by harnessing new generational insights and customer service best practices. Recognizing Gen Z’s expectations regarding affordability, accessibility, and financial partnership is a critical first step.

JUDITH FLINK is retired executive director of university student financial services and cashier operations, University of Illinois System, and currently senior consultant at Flywire. CHARMAINE DANIELS is associate vice president for student financial services, Morehouse College, Atlanta.

Related Topics

Gen Zers value financial stability and are happy to put in the hard work to obtain it.