5 Things to Know About The Class of 2021

5 Things to Know About The Class of 2021 - Go Commando App

Kids today, right?

But no, we’re actually more interested in kids tomorrow. As in, college kids and what they’ll be like tomorrow. Because we’re not sure if you’ve noticed but it seems like everything today, from music and movies to share economy services to technology and travel all seems to be marketed to whoever is darkening the hallowed halls of this countries colleges.

At one time, the dog and pony show was directed at Millenials but these days we’re looking more toward Generation Z and what the graduating year of 2021 will look like when they throw their mortarboards into the air. Gen Z now represents 25% of the U.S. population and $44 billion in buying power. Brands need that want to reach out to them must move quickly to make a lasting connection with them before they develop lifelong loyalties to another brand.

This year’s college freshman are different from previous classes for many reasons, but when it comes to how they will enact and react to campus marketing, we’ve boiled it down to 5 key differences.

#5: They will be on all new social networks

Remember the moment when you had your Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn profiles just the way you liked them—so many followers and curated posts—just to realize that they’re all forgotten and Snap Chat is everything? Well, get used to that feeling because you’re in for another four to five years of it if you’re hoping to connect with the newcomers on campuses this year.

When the Center for Generational Kinetics asked Gen Z’ers which social media platforms they would recommend for people their age, their ranking was as follows:

  1. Vine 54%
  2. Instagram 52%
  3. Twitter 34%
  4. Pinterest 15%
  5. Periscope 11%

We’re talking about a group of students who used social media to help them research the schools they wanted to go to. Half of the information they need is what their social life may look like—by way of pics, snaps and videos—if they choose this school over that school. The tools they use will be specifically chosen for their uses and not for how many people are on them (we’ll get to this “pickiness” later on).

#4: This year’s freshman are healthier than last years.

Each year, college kids are arriving at school with healthier and healthier habits. Or, they use college to develop those habits after being exposed to a wider variety of lifestyles among their peers.

What does this have to do with college marketing? Today’s freshman grew up in the middle of the whole obese children debate in America. So, you can imagine how much they were bombarded with messages about eating healthy foods, making healthier activity choices and learning to cook with mom and dad.

The Future of Eating report found that a 2021 graduate “is more likely to eat fresh, home-cooked meals than their predecessors, as fresh food consumption is expected to rise by 11 percent in five years.”

This group is also more likely to read labels before buying an item to eat. And unlike generations before, they are not just looking at the calorie count. You can expect this year’s new students to be scouring the ingredients list for “baddies” like sweeteners, flavoring, and preservatives, as well as high-fructose corn syrup. According to this article by Vending Times, they’d prefer Steevia or cane sugar, thank you very much.

#3: Experiences are More Important Than Belongings

Students are showing some real evolution in how they are freeing themselves of the need for consumer items, and saving their money instead for experiences. And campus marketing teams, this shift is hugely important. However often they purchase something or eat out, it’s about doing it socially or having something in the end to share on social media. If it means they get to see new bands before anyone else, eat at the newest food truck or go to “college kid summer camp” for a week, they will scrimp and save every penny they can.

Two of the top three spending areas for Gen Z are almost completely experiential and social in nature:

  • Food (80%)
  • Clothing (67%)
  • Experiences with friends (47%)

Additionally, 75% of these consumers prefer to shop at places that provide some kind of in-store experience. Only recently did the Ven diagram of students demanding experiences over product and companies appeasing this demand overlap the most. So, this year’s batch of freshman get to enjoy well-trained marketers who have been honing their “experience over stuff” offerings for a few years now. Companies that can offer students social events, travel, and tourism or weekend-long concert experiences are ahead of the game.

#2: The Graduates of 2021 Will Be an Economic Firestorm

When then graduate, Gen Z may even be significantly more broke than their older siblings who graduated only 5-10 years ago but this won’t last. This is the generation who grew up trying to compete for some of the same part time jobs that those displaced during the recession have been occupying. Add to that the fact that mom and dad had to go through the same recession and had less money to put toward college. With the average student racking up a $20,000-$43,000 bill over the course of their 4-year ride they are left with a much bigger student loan to pay off after graduation.

The good news is, they seem to be recession-proof in their work ethic. A recent Harvard Business Review article suggests that 70 percent of Gen-Z teens were ‘self-employed’ though revenue stream like teaching piano lessons, selling gig on Fiverr, or selling items on eBay. Only 12 percent had the usual part-time in something like in-store retail. What is important here is the spark of ingenuity that has been the driving factor behind all kinds of “gig economy” startups.

Translated into earning power in their post-grad years and some say that Gen Z could eclipse the current workforce. A survey by Northeastern University showed that while more than one-in-nine considered themselves self-employed currently, 42 percent expect to remain self-employed after school.

#1: Gen Z is Even Pickier than Millennials Were

Remember all the heartache felt by brands when some Millennials became “hipsters” and started eschewing them for more underground brands that no one had heard of yet (only to dump those too when they became “known”)? Well, get ready for a different brand of that because Gen Z has already built a reputation for being finicky.

The correct phrase would be “kind of picky”. After interviewing 1,000 college-aged consumers, one marketing firm found that, unlike their junk food-loving forebears, today’s newest students have high expectations for even their fast food.

American Gen Z’ers have even funkier names and were raised on a wide variety of foods. Even the fast food joints that popped up in the last decade or so are much more diverse in cultural cuisines and the quality of food. The graduates of 2021 are used to adding an appendix to everything they buy, from the sugar-free vanilla in their lattes to the gluten free and fair trade stamps on their non-dairy milk.

Emma Stone, age 27, publicly made the observation that “I think young people have fallen into cynicism, and making fun of things, and pointing out the flaws in everything. “[La La Land] is what I hope young people will do: work hard and achieve their dreams instead of being cynical.”

Marketers, get ready to have your hands full with packaging your campaigns in just the right way and then it only sticking to a very select number of 2021 graduates. But never fear, because when you get it right you get a customer forever.


  • Get to know more about Gen Z—check out this fantastic SlideShare deck with a checklist for connecting with Gen Z.
  • Want to understand today’s students now? Check out this case study to find out how to do campus market research.
  • Ready to get better results with campus marketing? Contact us!

Image courtesy of TravelBlat.com