Here’s what’s driving Gen Z to study abroad

Here's what's driving Gen Z to study abroad
While social media becomes a source of study abroad inspiration, pervading internet culture makes it harder for gen z to cope with real-world pressures. Source: Charisse Kenion/Unsplash

It’s well known that popular culture reflects the values of the time. Changing fashions are mirrored by evolving human motivations. Now consider this concept in the context of study abroad.

Influences behind students’ decision to study overseas are absolutely changing. And when you picture the turbulent waves of this era’s tide, it’s hardly a surprise. The battle between left and right continues to divide, the internet is an increasingly complex microcosm of human civilisation, and as United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said earlier this month, technological advancements occur “at a warp speed”.

Ladies and gentlemen – welcome to the digital age.

The digital pandemic has infiltrated every aspect of life, higher education included. In a bid to defy borders and capture more of the competitive (let’s not forget profitable) international student market, universities are hurtling towards the provision of comprehensive distance learning options.

Degree portfolios are migrating to the internet, offering the same high-quality academics with the promise of flexibility and convenience. Students can now earn world-class degrees part on-campus, part online, or otherwise fully online from the comfort of their homes. In line with the digital trend, the way students are searching for study abroad options are undoubtedly shifting, too.

Gen Z are digitally-fluent. But unlike millennials, they’ve never known life before internet. Source: Timi David Fregene/Unsplash

In a survey of 20,000 students from 127 nationalities, unravelled the changing attitudes between current and prospective international students. Known as the first ‘post-digital’ generation, Generation Z – born between 1995 and 2015 – have been pivotal to the computerised transition.

The forces driving Gen Z as consumers are inherently different to those behind millennials. And with US$44 billion in discretionary spending each year, universities are racing to attract these aspiring global learners – digital natives who are at times confused, at times empowered by today’s hyper-connected world.

“As Generation Z has grown up in a global, digital environment, it’s no surprise that they’re eager to expand their network of international friends and experiences in real life to match the global connections they have online,” notes the report.

As the same report states, it’s never been so easy for students to find inspiration from globally-minded peers, including cohorts of students currently studying or recently graduated from an overseas study experience.

Compared to millennials, Gen Z are 36 percent more likely to draw influence from study abroad stories found on Instagram or other online platforms; 44 percent more likely to cite social media as a direct influence; and 25 percent less likely to be swayed by the musings of family and friends.

YouTube – the video-sharing website that hosts 1.8 billion logged in users every month – is the greatest internet catalyst behind Gen Z’s decision to study abroad.

Thirty-four percent of potential international bachelor-level students were compelled by content viewed on YouTube, compared to 18 percent on Facebook and 15 percent on Instagram. At master’s-level, 29 percent cited YouTube, 18 percent said Facebook and 17 percent said LinkedIn. Instagram was less influential at 14 percent.

The regional angle paints a clearer picture of YouTube’s growing dominance. Prospective students in Northern Europe are most heavily motivated by social media than any other region. Twenty-eight percent of current students were influenced by the video sharing website compared to 33 percent among prospective students.

Instagram and Facebook come in at 21 percent and 19 percent for prospective students respectively, with this same social hierarchy continuing pretty much worldwide.

The battle between the social media elite may never set in stone, but from an institutional perspective, those serious about attracting the greatest minds of the next generation should consider a superior YouTube profile renovation. While it’s not so easy – or cheap – to make a high-quality promotional video, it’s clear for those who do that the investment will pay off.

But along with these drifting motivations comes a new wave of concerns, with the digital revolution bringing a different set of worries through to Generation Z. In Northern Europe, 53 percent of students are anxious about visas, while 46 percent have concerns over cost of tuition.

Southeast Asia, a region commonly known for its rigorous, often intensely vying education system, has seen a 25 percent decline in worries over reputation and ranking. Instead, students are 22 percent more concerned about cost of tuition followed by living expenses.

Prospective international students in the US are 33 percent more worried about tuition and 50 percent more concerned about housing. Finding and securing quality accommodation that’s affordable, safe, liveable and reasonably close to campus is seen as a growing concern among prospective international students around the globe.

Prospective students are far more worried about accommodation than the current student cohort. Source:

If every action has an equal and opposite reaction, it’s clear that the internet revolution has strained certain aspects of life outside the digital realm. For Generation Z, this is much harder to handle than their millennial forebears, since much of the former never knew the world before the digital storm.

Computer fluency means young people are constantly hounded by negative stories in the press, in which they are penalised and ridiculed for socioeconomic factors beyond their control. Baby boomers condemn them as self-righteous ‘snowflakes’, conveniently ignoring the crippling student debt crisis and impossibly tough housing market that cast a dark shadow over the prospect of graduate life.

Factor in the fear of finding meaningful employment after higher education and you can see why so many young people view their future as unstable.

This is so deeply ingrained in Gen Z’s mental psyche that anxiety has overtaken depression as the most commonly-reported mental health condition. Prospective students are worried about issues like cost of living and housing because life outside the digital bubble is increasingly demanding and difficult to navigate.

It’s hard not to feel intimidated when the outside world seems so obviously stacked against you.

But the growing impact of the internet has remained a constant in the lives of Gen Z, and in that much it’s a comfort. Yes, digital citizenship leaves them vulnerable to the pressures of the world wide web, but in terms of education, social platforms are a powerful tool for promotion and a vast source of study abroad inspiration.

It’s clear that universities can capture the minds of Gen Z through a well thought out and engaging social media strategy. But for how long can the likes of YouTube and Instagram beat the harsh realities of an unattainable life post-graduation?

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