Social media is changing the game for Gen Z and college recruitment. These are the latest strategies to propel your institution’s growth. 

Here, you’ll find:

  • Social media’s affect on college recruitment
  • Tips for marketing to the Gen Z demographic
  • Expert digital marketing insights for higher education
  • Pitfalls to avoid when connecting with this generation

The days of mailing view books for college recruitment are over. Long over. 

Generation Z is the first true digital-native generation, and higher ed institutions need to get on board. One-sheeters and brochures are a millennial student recruitment tool. Digital content — specifically social — is the way to connect with Gen Z. 

This generation was the first to grow up online and with mobile devices in-hand. Colleges and universities need a thriving online presence to catch and keep their attention.

Gen Zers have the ability to sort through content faster than ever before. So, it’s critical for brands to have a robust paid social approach and a dynamic organic social strategy that users don’t immediately scroll past.

According to Spiceworks and, 82% of Gen Z consumers use social media as a way to find new brands (the national average across other generations is 57%). The top platforms Gen Z uses four to five times per week are:

  • Instagram – 81%
  • YouTube – 78% 
  • TikTok – 75%

So what does that mean?

It means that brands need to go where their target audience is. For higher education institutions focused on recruiting Generation Z students, that means social media.

The Great Recession’s impact on higher education recruitment

It’s not just digital marketing channels that present a shift in the higher education landscape. In order to plan for the future, institutions need to consider the long-term effect of the Great Recession in 2008. 

Birth rates plummeted and now, nearly 18 years later, the traditional college-aged population is predicted to fall by more than 15% after the year 2025. As the competition among colleges and universities continues to intensify in the coming years, our roadmap can help you navigate the challenge of recruitment, enrollment, and retention of a shrinking pool of Gen Z prospective students.

Adding spice to your higher ed marketing campaigns goes beyond ad placement and strategic targeting. The recruitment cycle might begin with brand discovery via a paid ad or suggested piece of content, but it certainly doesn’t end there.

The recruitment and retention process spans from the moment young people discover a college or university to their first visit to the website, to outreach and nurturing until they start, and ultimately maintaining that relationship throughout their college career.

How to craft a winning social media strategy for Gen Z

Remember: Social is part of the campaign, not the campaign itself. Prospective students expect follow-ups. But not just a “Don’t forget to apply!” reminder — Gen Z wants a personalized experience.

hello peter email personalization

Image: The Marketing Millennials via LinkedIn

To Gen Z, “personalized” doesn’t just mean using dynamic fields to pop in their first name in an email or text message. (In fact, WordStream and Creatopy say this is a no-no to most Gen Zers, as they feel that using their personal data is a breach of trust.)

Rather, personalized means it’s about them, not the institution. Create a personal experience for the prospective college student

Gen Z and higher education marketing: Creating a more approachable social media campaign

1. Earn their trust

Notice we said “earn” and not “gain.” Gen Z consumers live by their values and make decisions — like if and where to go to college — based on them. To earn trust, institutions must be:

  • Authentic. Stop using performative actions as an attention-grabber; they can tell. Instead, highlight your existing community and leverage UGC (user-generated content) to tell a story and engage with new users.
  • Accessible and inclusive. Pew Research Center data shows Gen Z is the most ethnically diverse generation in history and, according to a report by Picsart, “Gen Z and Millennials care deeply about representation and inclusivity in media.” Some demographics are either misrepresented or missing entirely and 1 in 4 people in the U.S. have a disability.
  • Transparent. What can they do with their college degree? How much money will they make? What impact does the institution have on the surrounding communities? How are students supported and their needs met?

2. Meet them where they are

TikTok, Facebook, Snapchat, Twitch, Discord, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Twitter, YouTube, BeReal, Reddit, WhatsApp… So many platforms, so little time to capture a Gen Zer’s attention.

What social media platforms does Gen Z use? We can help with that. According to Pew Research Center, YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, and Snapchat are where Gen Z hangs out — sometimes nearly constantly.

Now that we’ve gotten where Gen Z is out in the open, it’s time to focus on what type of content goes on each platform. When you set out to create content that speaks to Gen Z, remember to tune in on:

  • Consistency. Not necessarily posting on a regular basis, but focusing on consistency in messaging and imagery. Ensure your institution’s values align with Gen Z’s values and stick to them.
  • Storytelling. Behind handles and avatars are people who want to share authentic, engaging stories with their friends.
  • Inspiration. When you share exciting stories and uplifting events that happen at your institution, your current students feel pride and express that pride for prospective students to discover.

Figuring out what organic content resonates with Gen Z on each of these platforms will inform what type of content should work best for paid social.

Did that TikTok get a crazy view count and tons of comments? Use it in your TikTok campaigns. How about all those likes on that photo and student testimonial on Instagram? Add it to your paid content marketing strategy.

“Great paid content is nothing more than great organic content than can reach more of the right eyeballs.” – Sara Stella Lattanzio, content strategist

3. Create a smooth user experience across all channels

You’ve done your research and activated influencers and creators in your campus community, but your work doesn’t stop there! You can have the greatest ads on the internet and the most engaged social media community, but if your website experience is a drag, you won’t go any farther.

Remember when we said Gen Z was raised online? Follow-up point: They’re online on their smartphones.

That means you’ve got mere inches of screen real estate to sell your institution and answer some key questions:

  • How long will it take?
  • How much will it cost?
  • What do I need?
  • When can I start?

There’s a reason University of Phoenix is a higher-ed powerhouse. Think about shopping on Amazon. You search for the thing, find the thing, and buy the thing — all in a few clicks. is the of higher education websites.

All the information you need to make a decision is right there and nobody has to hunt through a maze of landing pages to find what they’re looking for.

university of phoenix landing page

Image: University of Phoenix website

The takeaway 

“In the coming years, as colleges tweak programs and services and experiment with new approaches to attract and retain Gen Z, campus leaders need to stay focused, gauge progress, and promote iterative change based on what works. The risk is too great for institutions to stay the course.” – The Chronicle of Higher Education 

When it comes to Gen Z and college, higher education institutions need to adopt a personalized, authentic, and targeted approach to their social media recruitment. Ultimately, Gen Z students seek meaningful connections with their chosen university. 

By crafting a student-centric system, institutions can provide a positive social experience that speaks to Gen Z’s values and interests, helping create and nurture conversions.

Contact HawkSEM for Free Consultation