Gen Z Graduate Student Motives for Pursuing Higher Education

June 22, 2022 | By: LaneTerralever | 4 min read

What are Gen Z Graduate Student Motives for Pursuing Higher Education

Generation Z, born in 1997 or later, is the most recent cohort of people to pursue higher education and enter graduate school programs. The oldest are around 25 years old and have multiple motivations for going back to school, despite their young age. 

Pursuing higher education can be a daunting process for many, so marketing campaigns that appeal to this generation’s unique characteristics and motivations will be the key to increasing leads and enrollments. 

As a higher education marketing agency with years of experience in the industry, we wanted to learn more about graduate students, especially within each generation, so we surveyed over 1,100 prospective graduate students across the nation. For more detailed insights and marketing opportunities, read the report here

From the survey data, we were able to formulate three major grad student personas and their motivations to pursue higher education. While these personas can be applied to most other generations, we look at how they are specifically relevant to Gen Z.


Millennials as a Generation 

The first persona is the Recent Grad. 

This person is fairly comfortable with the grad school research process, as their student experience is not very far behind them. They’re already connected to college life and they have a clear idea of what they’re looking for. 

The Recent Grad is concerned about affordability. Their younger age means they haven’t had the time to develop their career (or income) yet. They are willing to “play the game” of higher education institutions, such as taking standardized tests and submitting letters of recommendation. This world closely parallels their undergraduate years, so it is not foreign to them yet. 

Gen Z is predominantly made up of the Recent Grad persona, mainly contributed to their age bracket. Most are still pursuing an undergraduate degree or will be graduating soon, so schools have an opportunity to begin reaching out to them to keep advanced degrees top of mind.

Overall, Gen Z is a generation of cautious scrutiny. They are not quick to trust and 68% read at least 3 reviews before making a first-time purchase online (Center for Generational Kinetics). They rely on real-life stories and honest reviews, which is why loyalty to micro-influencers and YouTube stars are so prevalent for this generation. 

When marketing to the Gen Z Recent Grad, give them marketing materials they will want to digest, such as video, real student stories, faculty interviews, and highlight the culture of the campus (whether in person or online).


On the topic of learning formats, our graduate report found 44% of 18-25 year olds prefer a graduate program that’s on-campus. Chances are their college years were disrupted by pandemic lockdowns and they are now craving the traditional college experience, unlike older generations who were able to learn in person. Higher ed institutions can use this to their advantage by sharing the campus culture with prospective students through video and social media.

Students Pursuing Professional Education

The second student persona we discovered is the Pursuer of Professional Education

This person understands that enrolling in graduate school is a commitment, both in time and money. They are willing to do the research, the vetting, the letters of recommendation, the standardized tests, the interviews, the applications, the list goes on. They care about a school’s prestige and see a graduate degree as just one chapter, not the epilogue, of their journey before the next phase of their education. 

For all the work they’re putting into this process, they want to be acknowledged with the same commitment, yet, they’re often disappointed at the deficit between what they expect and the reality. Examples of this include:

  • Information they’re looking for is not readily available and they are unable to adequately compare programs.
  • It is challenging to connect with advisors or professors. These conversations can be especially important for certain programs or industries. 
  • There can be a significant investment to apply, between application fees and costs of sending test scores, which may be a deterrent to some. 

Oftentimes, these students begin to feel frustrated and misled. Therefore, they become disengaged from a graduate school’s marketing efforts, relying more on their close-knit network to make a decision on which school or program to enroll in. 

Since this degree is not the end of their educational journey, this persona often has plans to rely on their school for employment down the road, so they will also heavily consider location and impact to life outside of school.

Gen Z, just starting out in their adult life, is barely beginning their journey as this persona. The most impactful pivot graduate schools can make now is to be transparent about desired information, make it easy to speak with an advisor, and incorporate a student-centered positioning that ensures prospective graduate students feel recognized for the hard work they’re putting into this process.


Individuals Seeking Career Advancement

The third persona is the Career Advancer.

This is the persona with the most variation, spanning multiple generations, as people turn to higher education from different life cycles and career phases. They are returning to school, versus continuing straight after graduating with their undergraduate degree. 

There is a reason they’re going back to school. They have identified gaps in their skillset and/or want to stay competitive in their field. They want to reach their career goals and are committed to personal development. Another primary motivator for the Career Advancer is pride.

These prospective students care about affordability, but due to their more advanced career phase, they don’t expect much when it comes to financial support. They simply want to ensure that the advanced degree will be worth the time and money invested. This also includes clearly understanding the expectations of their program, since they are balancing family, career, and now school.

While Gen Z doesn’t fully align with this persona (yet), 41% of prospective Gen Z students also consider graduate school to advance their careers. So, the motivation is the same, just in a different phase of life.

This is where marketing campaigns can find some overlap between persona and generation, appealing to Career Advancers of all ages. This includes showcasing a variation of ages, backgrounds, and career phases in real student stories. Flexibility is another important topic to focus on.



How to Tailor Your Approach to Each Student’s Motivation

LaneTerralever is a full-service marketing agency with some of the most extensive higher education experience in the region. From customer journey mapping to our data and analytics approach, we are the content marketing agency of choice for many higher ed institutions. 

We can help you tailor your message and marketing strategies to each of these personas and Gen Z as a whole generation.

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