Finding balance: Understanding the shifting priorities of Gen Z in higher education and career aspirations

Tuesday 5 December 2023, Student choice

by Edward McClaran & Vicky Downie, Principal Insight Consultants, UCAS

Finding balance: Understanding the shifting priorities of Gen Z in higher education and career aspirations

Edward McClaran & Vicky Downie, Principal Insight Consultants, UCAS

Those of us who have worked in student recruitment and youth marketing for a number of years have developed a strong, detailed understanding of what young people are looking to achieve in their higher education and career goals, with range of modules, student reviews, and social life continuously ranked as the top three decision-making factors among prospective university students in UCAS’ annual Student Decision Report.  

But as we all become fully embedded in our post-pandemic lives, its effects continue to impact those young people now in secondary school the most, inevitably shaping their future needs, wants, and motivators differently to those who came before them. 

What is most important to young people in 2023 considering higher education as a path to their future?

What are the influences motivating their decision-making, and what do they need the most from us?

While UCAS cannot claim to hold all the answers to what is an incredibly complex, fluid outlook across various demographics and regions, our next report in our Project Next Generation series has shed some important light on this topic. 

A balancing act

One of the key themes shining through from the responses we gathered from students in Years 9-12 is that of balance. Balance between their studies and their personal lives is the key equilibrium young people in this age group are increasingly determined to achieve, although they do not always know how best to go about it, and what is the best approach under pressure. 

To take an example, 16–18-year olds know all about studying hard for exams, but also stress the importance of relaxing when they’re finished. Work/life balance has become the watch word for post-pandemic jobseekers, and this has filtered down to school leavers looking to enter higher education and/or employment in the 2020s. This resonates with what we’re continuing to see in our Student Decision Reports, but rather than thinking about how you incorporate a range of modules and social life in your messaging in isolation of each other, think about how you can bring those two points together in your messaging to demonstrate how they will be able to balance both aspects through student support services or extracurricular activities at your provider.  

Young people have more opportunities today than they ever have, which is an undeniably wonderful position to be in. But whilst the luxury of choice is certainly an advantage, could it also be a challenge? So far, our mindset research paints a picture of pragmatism and preparation in their day-to-day lives – but when it comes to their post-secondary education and career plans, things start to look a little more uncertain.

UCAS has spoken in the past about the ‘paradox of choice’; how the common sense notion that choice brings freedom is often turned on its head when a plethora of choices becomes overwhelming. This can certainly be true for young people deciding on their future trajectory through life, education, and work. The need to earn money and in many cases the desire to remain living at home are strong motivating factors that bring jobs and apprenticeships to the fore in their consideration. On the other hand, following their passions and dreams and planning for a career over the long-term also exert a powerful pull on their decision-making, and our respondents named these two factors as the top causes for consideration of university as the right path for them to take forward.

Balance between the emotional and the rational

Young people’s current experiences and priorities are shaping more than aspirations for work/life balance, the need for balance is shaping their motivations behind all aspects of their lives now and in the future. Beyond a balance between their personal lives and their education, they are also looking for balance between the inevitable practicalities of life and their desire to fill it with purpose and meaning.

The thoughts and comments made by students who participated in Project Next Generation have demonstrated that Gen Z, through the influence of social media, are developing with an increased degree of self-awareness, seemingly more so than any generation before at these ages.

My career could possibly be affected, and I will have to do something that I don’t like. 

(Student, age 15)

As our fellow UCAS Consultant, Megan, commented in the first blog of this series, this cohort is not purely materially motivated – yes, they want to earn a decent wage to help mitigate against the risks from future cost of living crises, but they also aspire to use their own success to help others. The needs and motivations report explores this further; we see that balance of the emotional and the rational continue as happiness, good mental health, and wellbeing are the top motivators for achieving their HE and careers goals. 

If I’m not happy then life would lack meaning. because no matter your money, success, job etc. if I’m not happy then I feel there’s little point. I feel I have already taken steps to be happy, such as getting outside, reading, and spending time with family, and I plan to continue such activities in the future and hopefully find other activities that make me happy.

(Student, age 16)

Being able to balance rational and emotional messaging in your recruitment campaigns will therefore be essential if you are to attract the best talent from this cohort. Alongside factual information, whether course content, job descriptions, entry criteria, employability, or accommodation availability, ensure you’re placing your 'emotional proposition' in the form of supportive advice and guidance that will enable them to realise your offer. 

Here is an example of that balance between rational needs, and emotional motivations, as seen in 2023 Clearing:

  • 70% of all respondents to our survey of those placed via Clearing last cycle told us they wanted providers to 'talk me through the process step by step', while 59% said 'give me the facts'.
  • Contrast this with how they told us they felt – nearly half told us they were ‘uncertain’, and over half reported feeling ‘nervous’ as they entered Clearing, yet by Clearing’s conclusion they were overwhelmingly positive about the outcome they’d achieved – 92% reported feeling fairly or very confident they had made the right choice for them.

Everything happens fast in Clearing. The challenge in 2024 main scheme is to seek that balance across months of conversation with different groups of applicants, striking a reassuring note within the context of the cost of living and the paradox of choice, while ensuring you are clearly communicating the crucial need-to-know facts and processes they are telling us they need to hear from you.

This could be providing application writing advice, interview preparation guidance or support to achieve the grades they need to be considered – activities most universities and early-career employers already offer on a more limited scale through their outreach activities – in an easy-to-use format that can be accessed by everyone searching for more information on your course, apprenticeship, or job opportunity.   

Balancing pre- and post-16 information, advice, and guidance

As we mentioned earlier, this research has shown us that more young people are keeping their options open, but as they explore their post-16 options, they may be inadvertently closing themselves off to some future HE and careers options through the subjects and qualifications they choose. In the paradox of choice, openness can become indecision. But despite this, their increased self-awareness drives them to seek the information, advice, and guidance (IAG) they need from universities and employers to help them decide and ultimately succeed. There are three main things that young people are clear about needing more of:

  1. Firstly, no matter which path they’re on or might be considering, it’s relevant work experience.
  2. Secondly, soft skills are hugely important to young minds.
  3. And thirdly, young people are well aware that knowledge is power.

 Many universities and employers invest much of their time and resources building brands and relationships with prospective applicants in Year 12, but as this research shows this is far too late for many prospective applicants.

By providing longer term IAG from Year 9, not only are you giving students the insights and support about their post-18 options so that they can make the right Level 2 and Level 3 subject choices, but you’ll also be able to nurture their affiliation to your brand.

Another crucial balance to offer applicants is between the hard and soft skills that will benefit them along the career progression paths onwards from your courses. Then help them in identifying and developing their soft skills in response to these. Give them the information and knowledge they need on both fronts, to help build certainty that they will thrive after graduation.

If your support is pitched right emotionally, and useful rationally, they will inevitably develop deep levels of loyalty to your brand. When they are ready to make their final decision and apply, not only will you be at the top of their list, but are more likely to be the quality candidate you are looking for. 

Want to find out more about how UCAS can help you achieve balance in your student recruitment strategy?

Contact your Customer Success Director or email us at