Educators spend an inordinate amount of time trying to convince their students to think ahead and plan wisely – but it is the institutions themselves that must lead the way if they are to prepare for new trends and forge the way forward for coming generations of learners.
That means thinking beyond today’s Generation Z - the teenagers and tweens who are fast approaching higher education age – and ahead to Generation Alpha, the cohort of children born to Millennials and introduced to the world at a rate of around 2.5 million per week between the years 2010 and 2025.
If the Generation Alpha is only just approaching school age, it means there’s only a decade until they’ll be looking to apply for undergraduate programs. And if we consider that some Millennials are pushing the upper limits of their 30s, while others broke the Millennial-mold and had children early in their 20s, there’s a good chance that Gen-Alpha will be appearing sooner, rather than later in the halls of higher education. While things move so quickly these days that it’d take a brave individual to confidently (and probably quite wrongly) state what society will look like by the end of the 2020s, it would be equally short-sighted for universities to sit back and expect to adapt to new developments as they happen. If Generation Alpha are not yet out of short trousers, institutions can at least start to look at them in terms of demographics and, just as crucial for that big first-degree decision, from what we know of their parents – the millennials, otherwise known as Generation Y.
So what do we know about these new parents? For a start, they’re already thinking about their kids’ long-term education. It seems they've had such a struggle with student debt that they’ve started saving up to give their kids a debt-free education even while they continue to pay off their own fees.
This conscientious approach reflects more progressive attitudes in general. Gendered parenting roles, in particular, continue to break the mold, with fathers spending more ‘quality time’ with their children than in previous generations, and household roles and earning patterns less predictable than their twentieth-century forbears. Crucially, millennials are the first generation of digital natives, with the vast majority of Gen-Y parents regularly using social media as a way to bond with their offspring (and find tips on how to raise them!).
And more than ever, the current generation of young and expectant parents are wise to the complex relationship between higher education, career and life prospects – for example, rating teacher flexibility and creativity as more important than the level of a school’s funding. Tomorrow's undergraduates will demand ever higher levels of personalization and adaptability from their programs and their professors, and this will be reflected in the way that institutions design and market their degrees. Expectations for individuals are high in the 21st century, and millennials want their kids to excel on their own terms, rather than learning by rote and following well-established paths.
While we don’t yet know how Generation Alpha will behave, we have some clues as to who they will be. Demographics indicate that this generation will be more diverse, and generally wealthier – but with technological know-how crossing socio-economic borders to a far greater extent than today. They will, of course, live longer than preceding generations, which – combined with the shifting patterns we already see in education and careers – will mean a more extended, less prescribed relationship with the education system. They may start work later, shift careers more frequently than their parents and grandparents, and like their parents, are likely to eschew traditional career structures in favor of flexible options aimed at work-life balance. Their undergraduate courses will need to match an age of geographic and technological freedom with online, campus, and modular programs.
Universities will want to form lifelong relationships with these students by valuing their individuality, responding to and working with their personalities, and offering ongoing opportunities. A rigorous technological infrastructure will be a necessity, and courses should be affordable – which may mean finding new ways of spreading, sharing, or making back fees.
And more than anything, schools will need to be adaptable. Generation Alpha will be culturally diverse, free-spirited, and – in the best possible sense – demanding. Smart institutions and their marketing teams will already have begun thinking how to create the most desirable undergraduate opportunities for the class of 2031.