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Back to School 2021: what will the college experience look like?

books stacked on top of each other

Using our latest student insights, we uncover what the 2021 college experience will look like for new and existing students.

Starting college is a huge moment for students. It’s a pivotal point in a young person’s educational journey, signaling a fresh start, the first steps into adulthood, and the start of their financial independence.

Going to college in 2020 in the midst of a global pandemic was difficult for students, especially for freshmen looking forward to getting their share of the college experience that they would have heard so much about from their older peers. Of the new students we surveyed, only 24% of freshmen viewed the start of college in 2020 as a positive experience. Thankfully, things are looking up this year for both new and existing students, who can expect to experience a more normal Back to School season compared to the last.

Understanding the college experience will be key for brands looking to make that crucial first impression with incoming students this year. So, let’s delve in.

Students’ concerns and priorities

In total, 71% of the new students we surveyed expect to move into a new home when they start college, with 41% intending to move to a whole new state or country. Naturally, students have concerns when starting college and launching into a new stage of their lives, often linked to missing family, making friends, and moving to a new town or city. This year, the pandemic remains a cause of anxiety among new college students gearing up for their first semester. In total, 97% of 2021’s new college students are worried about the impact COVID-19 will have on their experience of starting college. Interestingly, those students who plan to stay living at home are more likely to be concerned about the impact of COVID on their studies or their health, whereas those who plan to move away are more likely to be concerned about its impact on their social life.

student sat on a bench writing in a book

A similar vein is evident when it comes to new students’ priorities, too. Students who will move away from home this year are more likely to prioritize making friends, fitting in, and getting on with roommates. Those planning to live at home during their studies are more likely to prioritize getting a part-time job. Overall, the majority of students (96%) consider doing well in their degree or major to be the biggest priority when starting college. This is higher than any previous cohort – undoubtedly the rise of college tuition fees are prompting students to focus more on getting the most out of their higher education to widen their future career prospects.

Student finances

College costs – and a young person’s financial future, in general – are hugely important to older Gen Zs. As a financially-savvy demographic, it’s not surprising that as well as finding a part-time job, many students are worried about being able to afford certain costs that come with attending college. 76% are worried about being able to afford study costs, while 60% and 46% worry about funding living costs and costs involved in socializing respectively. Today’s college students see the value in academic success and financial stability and are less concerned about parties and drinking. This shift in student culture should prompt a healthy mix of both academic and social activities on campus this fall. After a year of social restrictions, students will be keen to make the most of everything college has to offer.

Social life

After a year of social restrictions, students will be keen to make the most of everything college has to offer. Of course, that involves the social side of college life. As well as clubs, sports and campus activities, we expect Greek Life to remain a popular choice for new students this year who are looking to tap into renowned college traditions.

student sat on a bench writing in a book

Despite being a forward-thinking demographic, it seems there is still plenty of room for tradition in Gen Z’s world. With over 9 million members nationally, Greek life has built a strong foundation over the last 200 years or so and is still very much a prominent part of campus culture today. 67% of the sorority and fraternity members we’ve surveyed said Greek life influences how they socialize. A further 38% said it impacts what they buy, 37% where they shop, and 36% what they eat – brands, take note.

Sororities and fraternities cherish brotherhood and sisterhood, and value a sense of community – something students will be keen to tap after dealing with months of COVID disruptions. As such, trends tend to circulate quickly within sorority and fraternity groups, especially among those that live together in a house share. Being popular with one means you’re likely to become popular with them all – a bonus for brands wanting to up their Gen Z marketing reach.

Will you make a good first impression on incoming freshmen? Our Back to School campaign checklist will guide you through the key milestones needed to move the needle.

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