Rich Robbins, Bucknell University
I authored an article in 2020 discussing characteristics of Gen Z college students and considerations for academic advising of these students. That was pre-pandemic, before many colleges and universities swiftly pivoted to remote and hybrid teaching and learning environments. As many campuses return to in-person teaching and learning after two years of this pivoting, those same Gen Z characteristics persist. In many cases, they have intensified and evolved to include additional considerations for academic advising of this generation of students in the post-pandemic world of higher education.
In general, Gen Z students share diverse backgrounds and are civic and social justice minded, and at the same time experience high levels of anxiety and depression. They utilize some form of technologically the majority of the time, they tend to have short attention spans, and they are multitasking masters (Robbins, 2020). Sellingo (2020) distinguished between pre-Covid Gen Z students and post-Covid Gen Z students. Pre-Covid Gen Z students started college between 2013 and 2019 and had either graduated or were partway through their undergraduate career when Covid hit in 2000, while post-Covid Gen Z students were students in middle school and high school or had begun their first year of college just prior to the 2020 start of the pandemic. The focus here is on any of these students whose education or college plans were disrupted by the pandemic.
Post-Covid Psychosocial Considerations
According to Paz (2021), Covid shutdowns affected Gen Zers especially hard, with things like dating, making and sustaining friendships, and learning becoming more difficult than in the past. Gen Zers further reported feeling that they missed out on experiences and milestones that young people their age typically had. Nearly half of Gen Zers surveyed by the Associated Press-NORC (AP-NORC, 2021) reported that being happy and maintaining their mental health during the shutdowns were more difficult as well. One of the most cited reasons for their poor mental health was the lack of social connections in school and in extracurricular activities (Sellingo, 2020); this was true for middle school, high school, and college students during the past two years.
It is not all bad news, however. Perna (2021) reported that as a result of the pandemic, 85% of college students said they gained a new appreciation for the struggles of others, while Seemiller and Grace (2021) noted that Gen Zers remained at the forefront of advocating for social issues throughout the pandemic. In addition, while nearly half of Gen Z college students reported that the pandemic made their educational and professional goals harder to achieve (AP-NORC, 2021; Paz, 2021), many reported having opportunities to explore new hobbies, passions, and interests while meeting the demands of remote and hybrid courses. The survey by AP-NORC (2021) showed that 65% of Gen Z students consider education as very or extremely important to their identity. Perna (2021) reported that an increasing number (45%) of Gen Z students are considering entering a career in science and/or healthcare due to the pandemic.
Post-Covid Technological Considerations
While most Gen Zers are familiar with communicating through various means, face-to-face communication was the most preferred method of connecting with others prior to the pandemic (Seemiller & Grace, 2021). The capability to make human connections and read emotions remain primary reasons why they continue to prefer such communication—including via video—post-pandemic.
According to a survey by the Center for Generational Kinetics (CGK, 2020), when asked how their dependence on technology has changed during the COVID-19 pandemic, Gen Z college students reported being more dependent on streaming video (65%), Wi-Fi (63%), connected devices (63%), and social media (63%). Over 1/3 of those surveyed believed they will use streaming video (35%), Wi-Fi (35%), and social media (34%) even more post-pandemic than they did pre-pandemic.
Higher Ed Post-Covid Academic Considerations
Colleges and universities will need to help Gen Z students assimilate back into campus life following the loss of a year or more of an important stage of psychosocial and academic development to the coronavirus (Sellingo, 2020). Seemiller and Grace (2021) added that many students will desire to communicate and connect face-to-face with peers, faculty, and staff members even more than they did pre-pandemic, while also wanting to engage in social interactions not possible digitally. They will advocate for learning environments that include flexibility and stability, and interpersonal experiences and educational experiences that are inclusive. They will continue to focus on social justice issues and promote activities and experiences that allow both them and their institutions to make a positive difference in the lives of others (Seemiller & Grace, 2021). In short, Gen Zers will thrive in an educational environment where they can quickly shift between their digital and their in-person social connections, driven by interpersonal and social relationships while creating an impact on the world. This means that it will be critical for colleges and universities to design learning and engagement experiences that align with these motivations of Gen Z students.
Post-Covid Academic Advising Considerations
Pre-Covid, Seemiller and Grace (2016) identified four ways that campuses can engage Gen Z students: an increased use of technology in and out of the classroom, the incorporation of intrapersonal learning into class work and group work, the inclusion of community engagement opportunities in the curriculum, and connecting students to practical learning experiences starting earlier in a student’s college career. In my 2020 article, I suggested that academic advising processes needed to adapt to these Gen Z students’ optimal learning conditions while addressing the issues meaningful to them academically. This has not changed post-Covid.
Academic advisors must still be prepared for highly controversial topics of social justice, diversity and inclusivity, and others to emerge in advising interactions. Advisors will still require an awareness of learning and civic engagement opportunities for students in and out of the classroom (Robbins, 2020), and must continue to provide meaningful connections across courses and disciplines relevant to students’ academic and career goals (Egan, 2015). What has changed is the increased desire for personal connections while using both digital and in-person modes of communication. Advisors will accordingly need to utilize a combination of interaction venues. One-on-one personal meetings will still be desired and important, but long gone are the days of this advising delivery system being the only, or even primary, advising interaction. Advisors must meet Gen Z students where they are and adapt to their preferences rather than impose solely traditional advising processes on them—even those proven effective. Advisors experienced with distance advising and other digital forms of advising are ahead of the game, but an effective balance between digital and in-person processes is what Gen Z students want.
Further, given the increase in post-Covid mental health issues reported by Gen Z students, it is more important than ever for academic advisors to know when to refer students to mental health experts. Academic advisors have always played a key role in student success, but now more than ever advising will be one of the most crucial aspects of a Gen Z student’s higher education experience.
The pandemic experience has not changed the characteristics of Gen Z college students, but has intensified their need for both in-person and technological connections, their desire to connect personal and career interests with academics, their sense of civic responsibility and social justice, and (unfortunately) their increased need for mental health services. As with all aspects of a student’s higher education experience, academic advising is the “hub of the wheel” with linkages to all other support services on campus (Habley, 1994) and as such, advisors play a key role is supporting Gen Z students in more ways than most others in higher education realize.
Associate Dean of Arts & Sciences
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The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Chicago. (2021, December). Gen Z and the toll of the pandemic.https://apnorc.org/projects/gen-z-and-the-toll-of-the-pandemic/
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Cite this article using APA style as: Robbins, R. (2022, September). Advising Gen Z students in a post-COVID environment. Academic Advising Today, 45(3). [insert url here]