How to Make College More Relevant for Gen Z

With a nimbler approach to the curriculum, we can help this generation develop their ideals into real-world solutions.
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Generation Z has grown up with technology that allows for rapid responses to fast-breaking issues of the day. Whether it's Supreme Court rulings or hurricanes, young people can organize political rallies within days and fundraise for relief efforts within hours. Gen Z students are accustomed to engaging with the world as it changes.

Responding to Gen Z's interest in real-time engagement, colleges are experimenting with ways to make themselves more relevant to students, and to the world. Four years ago, Bennington College offered its first "pop-up" class after a police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black man, in Ferguson, Missouri. The college quickly created an intensive four-week course on discriminatory police practices, The Ferguson Report, and representations of its findings in the media, all coordinated by experts in multiple disciplines.

Today's Gen Z students are eager to understand and respond to such incidents. But traditional college courses often appear slowly, sometimes requiring votes by faculty committees, or involving year-long lead times before they're integrated into course catalogs and degree programs. Bennington has gone on to offer four- and seven-week pop-ups on topics that cannot be anticipated on academic-year planning cycles, including the devastating earthquake in Nepal, gun violence in schools, the 2016 election, and immigrant family separation at the border, generating new courses alongside the college's traditional curriculum.

More broadly, what do Gen Z students want from college? To answer this question, students, faculty, and administrators at Stanford University's d.school addressed four areas: student-driven learning, emphasis on skills over facts, finding a mission not a major, and lifelong learning. Given studies predicting that seven out of 10 workers currently hold jobs with uncertain futures, student interest in lifelong learning makes perfect sense.

While many academics and university leaders might be resistant to rapid change, a few colleges are experimenting with the possibilities. Brown University and a growing number of other institutions have helped students design their own majors in recent decades. Upending traditional structures, Arizona State University has spent the last 15 years reorganizing many of its departments, creating new schools and interdisciplinary majors. Particularly appealing to the evolving interests of Gen Z, colleges like Sterling and the College of the Atlantic are designed not around departments, but around certain sets of questions (sustainable food systems, environmental studies) that drive students to pursue a mission instead of a major.

Students at small liberal-arts colleges such as Bennington, Hampshire, and Sarah Lawrence have long pursued rigorous courses of study without the pre-set requirements of traditional majors. Students at such schools work with faculty to forge individual, interdisciplinary paths around their interests, emphasizing engagement with the real world. In Bennington's case, that real-world connection is intensified, as every student also works for seven weeks every year at a job in their field of interest.

In addition to forging their own paths, today’s students are creating new programs for their peers. A network connecting hundreds of schools across the country and internationally, the University Innovation Fellows program (incubated in the Stanford Technology Ventures Program and continued through the Stanford d.school), helps innovative students create programs and facilities themselves. For example, in 2017, Angelica Willis of North Carolina A&T State University hosted an event called STEM Girl Magic. Fifty participants took part in a design thinking workshop to re-design a wearable fashion or technology. In 2016, fellows and faculty mentors at the University of Alabama–Birmingham launched a student-run "makerspace" that offers 3-D printing, electronics building kits, and prototyping materials. Other such projects brought new ideas to other fields, including the humanities, and other countries around the globe.

These changes are meaningful, not only because they cultivate a college experience that connects to the real world but also because they enable students to be the architects of that experience. Programs that give students a voice also nurture personal responsibility. They encourage informed activism, and they reinforce our mandate to build a more just and equal society.

We are not introducing lofty ideals to Gen Z in college; they already have them. Our responsibility is to respond to these ideals, and create opportunities to help grow them into real-world solutions. We do this by letting the students be change agents on campus, by helping them develop the skills needed to change the world.

The onus is on us—college presidents, administrators, and professors—to hear Generation Z’s call for change, and adapt so that the future can be better than the past.

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Understanding Gen Z, a collaboration between Pacific Standard and Stanford's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, investigates the historical context and social science research that helps explain the next generation. Join our newsletter to see new stories, and let us know your thoughts on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Understanding Gen Z was made possible by Stanford University's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) and its director, Margaret Levi, who hosted the iGen Project. Further support came from the Knight Foundation.

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