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My Gen Z Daughter’s Video College Choice: My Focus Group of One

After 25+ years in higher education, most of it as a vice president for enrollment and marketing responsible for recruiting incoming freshmen classes, you’d think helping my daughter choose a college would be a breeze.  Having successfully navigated her two older brothers through their own journeys 8 and 6 years ago respectively, you’d think I’d totally score a ‘hat trick’ with my third kid.  You’d be wrong! 

 Meet Jess. She’s 17, a high school senior and she is a living breathing member of Gen Z. And she is unlike any of the students I’ve recruited or children I parented in the past. To say she is a digital native is an understatement and like her 61 million Gen Z counterparts, when she wants to learn about something, from new makeup techniques to trending music groups to how to fix a flat tire, YouTube is king. So why would selecting a college be any different?

As she started to narrow the choice of colleges she’d apply to, I spent time on the college websites. Instead of looking at them like ‘the competition’ I was looking at them as prospective college parent. I dutifully followed the prescribed “journey map” that schools had laid out for me. I watched the 12 minute video campus tours from start to finish. I scrolled through photo galleries of logo-wearing college students sitting on the foliage covered quads. I clicked on the different academic program pages and checked out the bios of professors and deans. And of course, I went to the tuition and fees pages to see just how much these puppies were going to set me back.

Typical college enrollment video

Typical college tour video

After threatening to take away her phone, I convinced Jess to join me at the laptop so we could explore together. “I don’t understand what I’m supposed to be looking at,” she complained as she spent about 10 seconds on the same videos I had watched earlier. “They’re so boring! It’s so fake,” she lamented as she flipped at warp speed through photos.

“Jess, how are you going to narrow down your choices if you don’t do research?” I asked, thinking about the hours and MONEY I had been wasting as an admissions professional on these tools that she simply was dismissing.

She pulled out the aforementioned phone, opened the YouTube app and within seconds was showing me student-generated, short-form videos. Jumpy, off-center, dizzying 1-minute windows into the world of real-live authentic students at her top choice schools. These ‘real’ students were talking about small dorm rooms, high costs of loans, the best parties to check out and why they chose their schools. Next she opened SnapChat and using just her thumbs showed me dozens and dozens and dozens of videos and captioned photos of Gen Z’ers just like her, walking around campus, eating in cafeterias, drinking out of red Solo cups. Instagram came next.

Typical Instagram authentic dorm tour video

Typical Instagram authentic dorm tour video

Based on my extensive research with my Gen Z focus group of one, I realize that recruiting college students today is more complex than it has ever been before. How’s that for an understatement? But a universal truth is that Authenticity reigns supreme and if they can’t see it in a video, it doesn’t exist.

I’m happy to say that Jess made her final decision and she’ll be sporting spirit wear on her new campus this fall, probably vlogging her way through the whole experience for the rest of her Gen Z’ers to see and share. And I got to see first-hand how one of the most powerful tools in my enrollment marketing toolbox impacts prospective students. Short form, authentic, influencer videos.




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