No More Millennials Entering College: How Can We Facilitate Gen Z Transformation?

These students don’t view the world in 50-minute, three-credit classes. If our mission is to prepare kids to be successful, the thing you have to prepare them for more than anything is adaptability. No one knows what the world is going to look like in the next 10 years. — Craig Chanoff, VP Education Services, Blackboard (as quoted in Kaplan, 2017, June, p. 32)

“We’re willing to try things and fail,” Jonah says of his generation. “We’re more scared not to try.” — Jonah Stillman (as quoted in Kaplan, 2017, April)

The millennial wave has passed in terms of typical college-aged incoming first-year students. Generation Z, those born between 1995 and 2012, are in college these days, and research reveals some key differences relevant for faculty seeking to help Gen Z transform and expand their perspectives.

Fortunately, several Gen Z traits, according to research done by the Institute for Corporate Productivity (Davis, 2016), lend themselves to the potential for transformation in students from this age bracket. The desire to contribute to society is certainly one, though there is a difference between Millennials and Gen Z on this point (Zimmer, 2015), with more Millennials broadly committed to making an impact for the social good as an overriding objective compared to those from Gen Z, whose experiences growing up included the Great Recession and the uncertainty of what their parents may have gone through in the Recession; more Gen Zers, then, seek financial security and ways to contribute to society, trying to ensure both are in their futures.

That said, it’s still the case that Gen Z wants to make a positive difference in the world: 93% say a company’s impact on society is important in deciding whether to work there or not (Davis, 2016).

Another Gen Z attribute that can be leveraged toward transformative experience is collaboration and networking. Many Gen Zers prefer a learning environment that is built as a kind of “networked discovery area” in which students work together to learn together, realizing the value of cooperative sharing toward a learning goal. As demonstrated in Jonah Stillman’s quote (above), Gen Z learning spaces must include the freedom to fail as a way to learn. Teaching approaches that somehow put students inside a giant “maker space” would thus be attractive.

But what of the internal processes driving this generation’s embrace of transformative teaching approaches? A very big clue lies in the fact that one of the top three factors considered by Gen Z students in choosing a college is “professors that care about student success” (Zimmer, 2015). In this regard, Gen Z is not that different from most human learners.

Here’s a specific example of a student describing why and how, from a Service Learning & Civic Engagement (SLCE) perspective (as expressed in UCO’s STLR terminology), the student sensed that the faculty member cared:

Thanks so much for being a great professor to me. You have opened my eyes to what is going on in poverty and what is going on in the environment. Your courses [have] helped me to educate others about the problems that are in the environment as well as in poverty. You have truly made an impact on my life. You have educated me so that I will be able to help others. I hope that in the future I can take more of your courses because you an excellent teacher. (Grantham, Robinson, & Chapman; 2015, p. 130)

The research that yielded the student quote immediately above had Grantham, Robinson, & Chapman examining students’ writing submitted as part of a thank-a-teacher program as well as examining findings based on National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) data. Qualitative analysis of students’ thank-a-teacher submissions showed that

students thanked instructors for broadening their horizons by either introducing them to new content, causing them to see material or a discipline in a new light, or helping students gain a new perspective on the world, a construct that we labeled as “worldview” in our coding.  (Grantham, Robinson, & Chapman; 2015, p. 130)

This is exactly what UCO attempts to achieve via its operationalization of Transformative Learning, which the university defines as developing students’ beyond-disciplinary skills and expanding students’ perspectives of their relationships with self, others, community, and environment. At least for the student quoted above, the teacher he or she had in the course successfully communicated caring about the student’s learning via an ability to positively impact what the researchers term the student’s “worldview.”

Yes, sensing that faculty care about them and their learning is very important to Gen Z learners. When they feel a teacher has helped them gain a new perspective on the world, they connect with the teacher and benefit from the positive affect surrounding that discovery.

The ultimate good news, though, is that “feeling cared about as a learner” is highly valued by all generations of learners, not just Generation Z. This means that faculty have a sort of “one size fits all” teaching tool at their disposal to help them succeed with learners of all ages: caring about their students as demonstrated in multiple ways. Many of those ways are particularly well matched to the “Transformative Learning” part of UCO’s mission, as Grantham, Robinson, & Chapman’s (2015) research has shown.



Davis, E. (2016, March 3). Infographic: Seven personality traits that define Gen Z. Retrieved December 10, 2017, from

Grantham, A., Robinson, E. E., & Chapman, D. (2015). “That truly meant a lot to me”: A qualitative examination of faculty-student interactions. College Teaching, 63(3), 125-132.

Kaplan, A. (2017, June). The next generation gap: How will millennial managers — as well as the rest of the workplace — react to the first wave of Gen Z entering the workforce this summer? Twin Cities Business, 24(10), 28-33. Retrieved December 10, 2017, from

Kaplan, A. (2017, April). The next generation gap: The members of Gen Z are coming of age, and they’re independent, focused and fiercely competitive. Delta Sky. Retrieved December 10, 2017, from

Zimmer, C. (2015). Getting to know Gen Z: Exploring middle and high schoolers’ expectations for higher education. Retrieved 2017-12-11 from


  1. Great post Jeff. Sure looks like UCO is headed in the right direction with this new generation of learners.


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