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New National Survey Finds Pandemic-Driven Shifts in Gen Z Priorities for Education and Work Persist

Fourth Annual “Question The Quo” Study Shows Strong Belief in Education After High School; Vast Majority of Teens Feel Unprepared to Choose Their Future Path

June 27, 2023


MINNEAPOLIS—Four years of pandemic-associated shifts in education and life experiences have culminated in lasting changes to students’ perspectives about their future education and work, according to the latest Question The Quo Education Pulse survey from ECMC Group.

The most recent national study of 14-18-year-olds in the United States—ECMC Group’s fourth annual survey since 2020—shows that teens have bounced back to pre-pandemic levels in their belief that education after high school is necessary, but they are rethinking the traditional design of four-year programs. Many students see two or three years of postsecondary education as the ideal program length, and more than two-thirds say their preferred educational environment would involve hands-on or on-the-job learning.

According to the survey, 65% of Gen Z teens believe education after high school is necessary compared to 59% in February 2020. That number dipped to its lowest point of 45% in January 2021.

And while the majority want to pursue an educational path after high school, only 13% feel prepared to make a decision about their future.

“The data we have collected over the last four years illustrates that we have entered a new era with significant shifts in Gen Z’s wants and needs as they plan their future,” said Dan Fisher, president and CEO of ECMC Group. “We must ensure students understand the different aspects of attending each type of postsecondary program. Information that is both effective and accessible to all students will allow them to make decisions that give them a better opportunity to successfully access, persist and complete their chosen educational path in a field that offers long-term career mobility and stability.” 

The findings come from the latest iteration of ECMC Group’s Question The Quo Education Pulse survey, which has examined high schoolers’ attitudes about their future education and career aspirations from before the pandemic through present day. This is the fourth annual survey and the seventh study (including three interim surveys) of more than 7,000 high school students ages 14-18, funded by ECMC Foundation and conducted in partnership with VICE Media between February 2020 and January 2023.

Gen Z understands the need for education after high school but wants the experience redesigned

While the number of Gen Z high school students considering four-year college has decreased by more than 10 percentage points over the course of the pandemic (and 20 points total since its peak in 2020 shortly after the pandemic began), those considering pathways such as community college, career and technical education (CTE) or on-the-job training have increased 3-5 percentage points since 2020.

Gen Z has a career-focused mindset and believes connecting their education to a future career is a necessity. They also are hyper-focused on ensuring their basic needs are met, particularly around mental health and wellbeing. These factors are equally important as education costs, an area in which students also feel a lack of preparedness and understanding.

And though they do not necessarily know what their exact career path will look like, 65% are interested in careers that put their passions over making more money, and 72% would prefer a career where they earn more over a lifetime versus a career where they make more money earlier in their career.

“At ECMC Foundation, we believe in the power of postsecondary education to transform socioeconomic trajectories, especially for students from underserved backgrounds,” said Jacob Fraire, president of ECMC Foundation. “We must be responsive to the factors that today’s students care about most—matters like costs, career connections and basic needs support—and work to design postsecondary pathways that will lead them to success.”

Additional findings include:

Gen Z believes in education but doesn’t see four-year college as the only path to success

  • 65% say education beyond high school is necessary (compared to 59% pre-pandemic)
  • The percentage of students considering four-year college has continued to remain around 50% since 2021 (52% in 2023, 51% in 2022, 53% in 2021, down from 71% in 2020)
  • The percentage of students considering community college has increased from 20% in 2020 to 25% in 2023; those considering CTE has increased from 15% in 2020 to 19% in 2023; those considering on-the-job training has increased from 19% in 2020 to 22% in 2023
  • 48% say their ideal post-high school education should last three years or fewer; 35% say their ideal post-high school education should last two years or fewer
  • Less than half (40%) say they would need four years of postsecondary education to be successful, which has remained consistent throughout the pandemic

Teens are hyper-focused on making a good decision about their future

  • 78% of high schoolers think about their education and career path beyond high school at least weekly; almost half (48%) think about it every day
  • The top factors impacting what they decide to do after high school have remained consistent throughout the pandemic:
    • The career they are interested in pursuing
    • Long-term earning potential
    • Mental health
    • Direct pathways into careers
    • Cost of tuition
  • The most important items in choosing a postsecondary institution include:
    • Understanding the different careers available
    • Being able to feed themselves
    • Having reliable transportation

Teens seek advice from those they believe have their best interests at heart, but feel unprepared for the future

  • The top sources they turn to for information: family (62%), high school teachers/counselors (62%) and college websites (48%)
    • 63% wish their high school would provide additional guidance on finances (including how to manage debt, handle unexpected expenses and pay for college)
    • 48% wish their high school would provide additional guidance on pathways after high school (including the different postsecondary options and the various career options)
    • 40% wish their high school would provide additional guidance on health (including basic needs, such as mental and physical health)

Careers are the end goal for Gen Z when it comes to postsecondary education

  • 79% say it is important to have on-the-job learning experiences during their postsecondary education
  • 78% say it is important to have career plans determined before graduating from high school (consistent since 2022)
  • 65% say their ideal education path would involve learning skills on the job through programs like apprenticeships and internships
  • 62% started exploring potential career options in high school
  • 61% have a career in mind right now
  • 53% want more formal learning opportunities throughout their lifetime
  • Only half have had access to career exploration programs or resources

Gen Z understands that there is a financial burden associated with postsecondary education and is trying to mitigate the costs through outside sources

  • 62% worry about how they will pay for college (has remained a consistent concern throughout the pandemic)
  • 58% plan to apply for scholarships to pay for postsecondary education
  • 48% plan to apply for grants
  • 45% plan to take out student loans
  • 29% say family will help pay from their own accounts
  • 23% say they will pay using their own savings
  • Their biggest questions about money include: scholarships and grants available to them, average costs outside of tuition, the length of time to repay student loans and potential earnings depending on the path they take after high school

Gen Z sees employers and the government playing a role

  • 90% believe the government has a role in supporting education and careers by paying for education, paying off student loans or providing tuition reimbursement (has remained consistent since before the pandemic)
  • 86% believe companies have a role in supporting education and careers by providing tuition reimbursement, providing formal education or subsidizing education (has remained consistent since before the pandemic)

The surveys are part of ECMC Group’s Question The Quo campaign, which aims to empower students to learn about the various postsecondary education options available and to take the career path that’s right for them.

Survey Methodology
ECMC Group, in partnership with VICE Media, has conducted seven national, unduplicated Question The Quo Education Pulse surveys. The first survey of 1,177 high school students was conducted Feb. 25-March 2, 2020; the second survey of 1,025 high school students was conducted May 14-20, 2020; the third survey of 1,001 high school students was conducted Jan. 4-19, 2021; the fourth survey of 1,052 high school students was conducted Sept. 20-Oct. 3, 2021; the fifth survey of 1,062 high school students was conducted Jan. 23-Feb. 11, 2022; the sixth survey of 1,020 high school students from low-income, first-generation and BIPOC backgrounds was conducted Oct. 11-25, 2022; the seventh survey of 1,002 high school students was conducted Jan. 9-19, 2023.

About ECMC Group

ECMC Group is a nonprofit corporation focused on helping students succeed by creating, providing and investing in innovative educational opportunities. Headquartered in Minneapolis, ECMC Group and its family of companies are focused on advancing educational opportunities through financial tools and services; support for postsecondary access, persistence and completion; and impactful and mission-aligned funding for innovative programs to help students achieve their academic and professional goals and to address the future of work. To learn more, visit

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