Young black woman with shaved head, smiling, with campus in back ground

Why Generation Z Offers New Hope for Business Schools

Purpose-driven, tech-savvy, and globally minded, Gen Z students want to make a difference and can infuse business schools with new energy and optimism.

The coronavirus pandemic is putting immense pressure on the world’s business schools. They’re battling it well; moving online, adapting teaching methodologies, and innovating fast in an ever-changing environment.

Still, it’s not an easy time. MBA students have demanded tuition fee refunds at some schools, and others have had difficulty attracting new candidates to traditionally on-campus programs this year.

On top of that, the world is witnessing heightened calls for social justice, prompting business schools and universities to closely examine their policies and practices related to equitable and inclusive learning.

In such a tempestuous climate, business schools need a sign of hope—and that hope comes in the form of Generation Z.

Gen Z—people born in the mid-1990s to 2010—make up roughly 30 percent of the global population. In the United States alone they comprise 25 percent of population and contribute 44 billion USD to the economy each year.

As young professionals, member of this generation have an average attention span of 8 seconds, but they make decisions carefully. After their first consideration of business school, Gen Z candidates tend to move through the pipeline at a slower pace than their millennial counterparts, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC).

But once Gen Zers do arrive on campus, whether virtually or physically, they’re ready to make a difference. The generation enrolling in MBA and business master’s programs today is accustomed to technological change, hungry for global experiences, and prepared to drive business schools forward in their quest for greater diversity and inclusion.

Purpose-Driven

Members of Gen Z care about improving the world around them and are motivated by the impact they can make on society. They grew up after the global financial crisis and during a time of recession. They’ve experienced tricky jobs markets and are unlikely to stay with one company for the entirety of their professional lives.

In fact, a consistent 25 percent of business school candidates today, many of whom belong to Gen Z, plan to start their own businesses, and candidates are interested in a variety of career paths—not just consulting and finance anymore. They are increasingly focused on areas such as social enterprise, impact investing, nonprofits, and corporate social responsibility.

Gen Z has also experienced a period of significant political and cultural change: Barack Obama became the first Black U.S. president; same-sex marriage was legalized in many countries; and the #MeToo movement has exposed the regularity of sexual assault by those in power. In the U.S., Gen Z is the most racially and ethnically diverse generation to date; nearly half (48 percent) are non-white.

Recent events have shown how Gen Z students can reinvigorate business schools with a renewed sense of purpose. Students around the world were quick to respond to the Black Lives Matter protests that demanded justice for black victims of police brutality. MBA students from Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business published a call to action advising the student community on steps they can take to contribute to positive change.

In May, students from various U.S. schools joined forces to take part in the Small Business School Challenge, a 48-hour virtual workshop, set up by MBA students, designed to help startups find solutions for some of the challenges they face during the coronavirus pandemic.

Tech-Savvy

Gen Z’s activism is often most visible on the internet. Nearly 92 percent of Gen Z has a digital footprint, and 75 percent of Gen Z uses their mobile phones more than any other device.

In the past months, even full-time business school students have been required to study their courses online as a result of COVID-19. Although some campuses are set to reopen in August and September, many schools have plans in place for hybrid programs (part-online and part-offline) rather than a return to fully on-campus courses this year.

The good news for business schools is that Gen Z students, with all their tech savvy, are more ready for this new normal than most. GMAC data shows an increasing interest in online programs, and, even for full-time programs, Gen Zers are more prepared than millennials to have some coursework delivered online.

To fill their programs, business schools will need to adapt their marketing plans and the channels they use to attract Gen Z candidates.

YouTube, for example, is the most-used social media platform by Gen Z, followed by Instagram and Snapchat. According to Google, YouTube is a place where Gen Zers go to be cheered up or entertained, but it’s also where 80 percent go to expand their knowledge.

B-schools can try engaging Gen Z with short, snappy videos to capture their attention, combined with longer-form video content for them to get drawn into—like Rotterdam School of Management’s impactful alumni stories or Dartmouth Tuck’s campus tours.

Another good example is the Instagram takeovers hosted by MBA students at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland. Students record a series of short clips of themselves for a day, showing the human, relatable, and fun experiences you can have at business school. As a result, potential Gen Z candidates experience a day in the life of an MBA student through their smartphone.

Globally Minded

While COVID-19 continues to restrict travel, business schools will look to local markets. But in the longer term, Gen Z’s desire to study abroad will continue to provide many schools with a healthy supply of international candidates.

Gen Z has grown up in a more globalized world than previous generations. They often have parents from diverse cultural backgrounds and they speak multiple languages. While they are more attuned to online learning, they still want to travel and see the world.

Before the pandemic, 29 percent of candidates applying to business school said they were motivated by international employment opportunities after graduation. And the percentage of candidates who plan to apply to international programs has held steady over the past five years, despite difficulties in gaining work visas and the political environment in the U.S.—still the number one destination for graduate management education.

What’s changing, however, is where Gen Z students want to study. According to 2019 data from BusinessBecause, Gen Z is almost 10 percent less likely to study in the U.S. than millennials, and more likely to study in Europe (in the U.K., France, and Germany).

Despite the challenges posed by COVID-19 and broader societal unrest, the aspirations of a new generation of candidates to pursue graduate management education remain strong. Wherever they study, Gen Z students—with their adaptability, drive, and passion for social change—can help change business schools for the better.


Marco De Novellis, Editor, BusinessBecauseMarco De Novellis is the editor of BusinessBecause, an online publisher dedicated to graduate management education, and is the creator and host of the podcast, The Business School Question. Follow him on Twitter @marcodn_bb.