There are 2.4 million fewer college students than there were five years ago. That's according to Jennifer Garrett of Facebook and Kate Turkcan of Kantar Consulting—their presentations at the 2018 Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education outlined how the next generation of college and university students, referred to as "centennials" and including those born since 1997, account for about 25 percent of the total U.S. population.

So what are the hallmarks of this diverse generation? And what are their feelings on higher education?

The New Dynamics

The pressure to do well is at an all-time high—in fact, centennials by and large feel more overloaded and more overwhelmed than previous generations. They're putting twice as much pressure on academic success, living healthfully and standing for something in society than students 30 years ago. (And they're doing it all with a smile.)

This pressure drives centennials to evade risk as well—they're not interested in putting their futures at risk but instead are compelled to build a solid foundation for their college years and beyond. In fact, 91 percent of centennials feel control over one's life is a sign of success—and well more than half think they should have a good handle on what their future career looks like before they leave high school. 

World-Building, World-Changing

This generation is also making a point of doing some world-changing while they're at it—they consider disruption of the norm as an opportunity to create something new or build out a new idea. This is primarily due to the fact that they grew up on constant change—they believe that doing good for the planet outweighs maintaining a strong economy, that risk is acceptable if it helps the environment and that brands focusing on social issues and values are preferable.

The presenters outlined recent Nike campaigns as making a big impact on centennials through focusing on social issues and sharing these values with their prospective customers—they included the development of a line of athletic gear for female athletes of all faiths and their current Colin Kaepernick “give up everything” campaign. They cited 86 percent of this generation appreciating a company standing up for its values, regardless of whether or not they personally agree with them.

What You Say Matters

Your college or university brand needs to choose its words wisely—centennials rely on brands to play a part in the betterment of society as a whole (72 percent say so). But authenticity is a hurdle—nearly two-thirds of this generation consider it difficult to trust brand messaging.

Building trust is critical in this regard—higher ed brands have an opportunity to do this by ensuring their marketing is transparent, honest, purposeful, person-focused and solution-based.

Your Marketing Mission

The centennial priority should be front and center in your college or university marketing. It should mirror the pressures this generation faces, and it should reflect values they care about, such as being successful, taking responsibility for the planet and being economical.

So how do you reflect the drive to be successful? Promote high-quality programs that your university offers, including opportunities to gain real work experience and transitional employment during and after college. Economics can be promoted through your marketing by emphasizing sensible in-state tuition prices, reciprocity and the percentages of students who receive gifted and borrowed financial aid.

And social-consciousness? This is where your student body comes in—focus some of your messaging on the students themselves and how they use on-campus clubs and organizations to make a difference in the world. Host social media takeovers, guest blogs and video content that demonstrates this impact.

Making a Connection

If you've heard a smartphone stat about young people, you've heard it 1,000 times. But the fact of the matter is, nearly 90 percent of centennials are toting a smartphone, and more than three-fourths say they couldn't function without it. Use this.

Centennials by and large prefer to receive content via text message. This channel affects how higher education institutions do business and it fundamentally changes how prospective students can be reached. Anecdotal evidence presented by Jens Larson of Eastern Washington University and Dave Marshall of Mongoose Research referred to a 40-80 percent engagement and response rate when making use of text message marketing.

Additional avenues to investigate include email, which still holds some weight—just remember to be concise and to the point, offering instant-gratification items such as bulleted talking points or video content. Your website is also relevant in the 2019 era. Just remember to make it responsive—mobile devices account for two-thirds of your web traffic and a third of centennials cite dissatisfaction with colleges or universities' mobile experiences.

Don't forget social media, either—that's how nearly half of prospective students first learn about a college or university. Half of students are prone to clicking on higher education institutions' ads on social media, with Instagram being a key marketing opportunity for colleges.

Higher Education Freshman Insights Infographic Download

Sources: Kantar Research