Through their eyes: Understanding Gen Z’s diverse perspectives and ambitions

Through their eyes: Understanding Gen Z’s diverse perspectives and ambitions

Students In Classroom At Desk

As the global international education community gathers in Denver for NAFSA 2022, the organization’s first face-to-face annual conference since the COVID-19 pandemic began, there is palpable excitement around the prospect of connecting in person again. Among the topics participants must address are the ways in which students who belong to Generation Z have been shaped by their collective experience of the past few years as well as by the wider social, geo-political and environmental issues which have come to define this decade — and implications for serving those students.

There are over 1.8 billion Gen Zers on earth. Gen Z individuals constitute the largest share of the pool of potential international students. While there are generational similarities in Gen Z students’ approach to international education, attitudes are also shaped by other, more localized factors. What defines a US student’s perspective is inevitably different to what defines that of a young Nigerian or Pakistani student.

Earlier this year, we shared our research into Gen Z student thinking at the AIRC Spring Symposium. In a global INTO survey of over 1,200 students from more than 93 countries, focusing on China, India, Kenya, Nigeria and Pakistan, we analyzed significant factors and motivators in decision-making around overseas study and the extent to which the pandemic has changed young students’ outlook. Our findings demonstrate that an effective international education strategy must consider not only what unites Gen Z, but regional differences between their study abroad ambitions.

Outcomes matter for Gen Z students, but the extent to which they do varies by region

It may seem a self-evident point — outcomes matter when it comes to an international degree. Among Gen Z students, there is an increasing emphasis on what higher education tangibly delivers in terms of enhanced employment prospects and skills to succeed in life after college.

A March 2022 report from Gallup and the Lumina Foundation indicated that 61% of US college students remain enrolled in college in order to pursue a more fulfilling career. That focus on career success is even more pronounced in our survey, with 81% of respondents indicating that a primary driver for overseas study was to get a better job in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Across the globe, this has supplanted ranking as a criterion for college choice. Nearly three quarters of students surveyed — 72% — think the capacity of a university to give them the skills they need for their future is important than its ranking. That said, ranking continues to be more important in some markets compared to others. In China, roughly as many students believe it’s important to attend an elite institution as believe outcomes outweigh ranking — 42% versus 43%, respectively. In more value-driven markets, such as South Asia and West Africa, more students believe outcomes outweigh ranking. In Pakistan, 72% of students care more about outcomes than rankings, and in Nigeria, 81% care more about outcomes.

The pandemic’s impact on Gen Z students’ career ambitions

Once again, we notice some regional variations in our responses. In China, 63% of respondents indicated they are more inclined to look for careers which offer a better work/life balance as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic — compared to 49%, globally. This may reflect students’ reflection on the sacrifices their parents have made in order to build a better life for themselves as much as the consequences of the pandemic.

In Africa, both east and west, our survey picked up greater levels of entrepreneurial enthusiasm, with 61% of Kenyan respondents and 50% of Nigerian respondents indicating they want to start their own business one day as a consequence of the pandemic — compared to 45%, globally.

Gen Z international students generally feel optimistic about the future

Across the five countries we focused on, Gen Z students show a great sense of optimism in the face of COVID-19. Almost 90% of the students we surveyed feel hopeful or optimistic about the future, and 74% believe they have more opportunities to succeed than their parents. And for most, they see an international education as the pathway to that success.

The extent to which students feel positive about the future does vary slightly based on demographics and geography. Positivity is particularly prominent in India and Nigeria, where 94% and 93% of Gen Z students feel hopeful or optimistic about the future, respectively.

Don’t forget parents when communicating with Gen Z students

A striking finding of our survey is just how influential parents are in the decision-making processes of their children. Indeed, this generational shift is evident elsewhere across the world, where parents are friends and confidantes as well as providers.

Across our sample, 82% of students indicated that their parents play a vital role in their success. Given this, developing communications plans which engage parents in parallel with students is almost as important as communications to students themselves.

Instantaneous communication is the universal expectation

Gen Z students live in a hyper-connected world. They have never known a life without the internet, and in more developed economies, they are accustomed to receiving what they ask almost instantaneously.

We see this reflected in a recent INTO poll of education counselors and agents worldwide. According to our survey, 81% of agents rank a university’s or organization’s rate of response to enquiries as very important in decision-making, and 74% rate response to applications as very important.

How do international educators respond to Gen Z’s diverse needs?

As Aristotle observed, “Generations are shaped by history and history is shaped by generations.” There is no homogenous Gen Z, but rather a global generation of individuals shaped as much by their common experience of COVID-19 as the factors of regional economic development and culture.

It is down to those of us in international education to be cognizant of the many forces impacting on Gen Z, and to be sensitive to the unique challenges these students face. That means leveraging nimble recruitment strategies that communicate career outcomes to a global audience while navigating local nuances that shape students’ career goals and finding creative solutions to demonstrate the concrete ROI of an international degree in addition to rankings. In short, it means meeting the members of Gen Z where they are — not as a monolith, but as a mix of diverse drives and dreams.


Keep an eye out for the results of a new INTO survey of Gen Z students in Vietnam, which will be released in July.

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