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  • Writer's pictureSuzanne Morrison-Williams

Millennials – Changing the face of Higher Education Who are the Millennials?

Updated: Jul 26, 2019

Millennials also known as Gen Y, Gen Next, the Me Generation and Digital natives, currently comprise some 80 million within the US population. Of that 80 million, 55.2 million are currently in the workforce and they are slated to be 75% of the workforce by 2020[1]. Not since the Baby Boomers has a generation so radically changed the face of the American landscape. Millennials are vastly different from the Gen Xers who preceded them and are changing the way in which we do business, buy products and communicate. While many industries have quickly adapted to this force to be reckoned with, higher education continues to lag behind and are wholly unprepared in its ability to cater to this new generation.

Millennials were raised by extremely attentive parents and given tons of praise leading them to be very confident, even if their confidence is somewhat unwarranted. They are a highly optimistic generation and err on the side of social consciousness, justice and corporate responsibility. They are more liberal than previous generations and have a greater need for social justice. And while they enjoy money and what it can do, they are not as driven to accumulate it as much as previous generations. They work to earn enough to do the things they need to do. They have a greater need to have life experiences rather than to accumulate material wealth, even though they do like to acquire things that will help them to enjoy those experiences.

Millennials are the most educated generation. According to the PEW Research center, some 63% of Millennials value a college education and plan to get one. Of that number, 19% had already graduated from college and the remaining 44% planned to graduate from college. Some 27% of Millennial females and 21% of Millennial males had college degrees. This is in stark contrast to only 20% of Gen X females and 18% of Gen X males. An even further contrast is the comparison to the Baby Boomers of whom only 14% of females and 17% of males had degrees. Not only are they the most educated, but they are continuing the Gen X trend of more women earning degrees than men.

With their increased levels of education and having had the best that education has to offer – from K-12 to college; Millennials are now a generation shouldering student loan debt to the tune of 1 trillion dollars. Because the price tag of education is now so high and continuing to climb each year, Millennials have become very savvy about their education choices. Unlike previous generations who saw education as a rite of passage and an investment in their future, Millennials view education as an expense. More importantly, Millennials view education as an expense which is unnecessary unless it is going to lead them to an outcome, which they are actively seeking to achieve. So they will chose to not go to school until they find a good fit both for program as well as how they fit in culturally within the institution. This is a huge shift from prior generations.

How to engage millennial students

Long gone are the days when educators could stand in the front of a classroom and pontificate expecting students to hang on to their every word. Millennial students disengage fairly quickly if they are not actively engaged in the education process. Engaging Millennial students in the classroom and learning process can be accomplished by implementing the following 6 items:

- Ensuring that they have a hands-on methodology with the material

- Ensuring there are mentors in the subject matter who can be the instructor but should also include guest speakers and other industry experts who can give students valuable information not found in the textbook; as well as personal anecdotes and feedback about their own life and work experiences

- Allowing Millennial students to bring their own experiences into the learning process thereby actively engaging their prior learning into the process

- Engaging in the use of technology with apps, blogs, social media and gamification

- Allowing Millennials to use their naturally collaborative skill set to work in teams to accomplish learning goals

- Encompass social responsibility into their projects as a way to allow them to bring in their personal experience and philosophies into the learning process. Millennials value experiences and so they like to travel, volunteer and do things which make them feel better about themselves because they are serving a greater purpose than themselves.

This is a generation that has been labelled as lazy, but they are not. They simply are motivated to work on things which interest them. Millennials see little value in simply doing something unless it’s adding value to something they see value in. So lectures, activities and/or assignments that are viewed as non-valuable will not be completed. Educators will always need to demonstrate that course activities are tied to the learning outcome which the Millennial wishes to accomplish. Millennials do not see the need to do work simply because the instructor thinks it’s important. Millennials themselves need to see it as important and/or valuable. If Millennials find there is a constant disconnect with their education and/or their instructor, they will opt out and simply either drop the class or drop out of school. They are NOT the ‘grin and bear it’ generation. They expect to see an immediate and continued ROI if they are to remain in school.

Millennials are labelled as spending all their time playing on their phones or video games. What many educators fail to realize is that these behaviors give them inherent skill sets which need to be properly harnessed and utilized. Millennials are extremely comfortable with technology, hence their name digital natives. They grew up with smart phones, tablets and the internet. Information was always readily available to them. Unlike previous generations, technology does not scare them. They expect to have technology incorporated into their learning environment. They went to classes online in high school; computers and tablets were a part of their formative learning; and they use apps on their phone to complete a variety of tasks. Failure to use and implement technology in the classroom and learning experience will disengage this population since their expectations are not being met.

With regards to their rampant video game playing - The rise of gaming is a global phenomenon with this generation. There are gaming tournaments and some colleges now offer scholarships and internships for gamers[2] .The piece that most educators miss with gaming is that these are young people who often live in different states, countries, time zones and speak different languages. Yet, they have created a means to work collaboratively across space and time in order to play together. This is an amazing accomplishment of teamwork and collaboration that schools should take note of. This is something to be lauded and utilized within the work and education environment and not seen as a hindrance to productivity or education. Instead educators should find ways to use gamification within their classroom and learning environment to create further classroom engagement.

Two areas which Millennials are often vilified for is their (a) connection to social media and (b) their lack of soft skills. The solution to this is quite simple. Millennials prize social media because it gives them connections and ties them to social referent powers. Schools and educators need to mimic this process. They may do this by also engaging with Millennials using social media as well as providing Millennials with referent powers in the form of truly engaged faculty members as well as experts in the field which they are pursuing.

Preparing Millennial students for employment

The top 10 things that employers seek in order are: Leadership skills, Ability to work as part of a team, Strong written and verbal communication skills, Decision making and problem solving skills, A good work ethic, Technical Skills, Initiative, Digital Literacy Skills, Professionalism: Specialized Knowledge, Honesty, Integrity, Accountability, Self-Regulation, and a Healthy Self Image.

Core to Millennials are (a) the ability to work as part of a team, (b) ability to quickly acquire technical skills, (c) digital literacy skills and (d) a healthy self-image. The areas of leadership, work ethic/initiative, communication skills and professionalism are the missing pieces that employers refer to as lack of soft skills within the Millennial demographic. It, therefore, becomes imperative that educational institutions build these skills into their programs if they wish to satisfy employers. Educational institutions can do this in a variety of ways.

First and foremost, curriculums should focus on problem solving initiatives. An example would be providing the students with a problem/issue at the start of class which needs to be resolved. The class is then broken down into groups and each person within the group is assigned a role including Team Lead and Presenter. Each student should have an opportunity within the duration of the course to assume each role. By using this problem solving strategy, over the course of a term, each student build skills in team building, collaboration, leadership, presentation and problem solving. Over the course of time, this becomes a technique that the student incorporates into their thought and decision making process thereby building a new skill set. At the end of the course, post tests will determine how many of these attributes students have gained. Additionally, strategies like flipping the classroom gives students the ability to demonstrate their knowledge and communication/presentation skills by having the faculty member focus on problem solving skills within a classroom rather than focusing on content acquisition.

For educational institutions to meet the needs of Millennial learners and prepare them for the workforce, schools will need to focus on 3 key areas: Personal, Academic and Life Skills

The following table shows how educational institutions can help to increase these skill sets in Millennials.

Implementation Strategies


Schools should implement team-based exercises, speech requirements and collaborative tasks within curriculums to help build leadership skills.


1. Use the Flipped classroom technique.

2. Allow them to bring their experience into the classroom

3. Use adaptive learning techniques and technology

4. Teach students HOW to be inquisitive

5. Talk about change and how they will benefit from always learning

6. Teach them HOW to teach themselves

7. Show them how to be life-long learners

Life Skills

Recognize them for meeting goals and targets

Millennials are here to stay! They are the largest demographic in the United States and in the world. They are young, bright and energetic and they ARE the FUTURE. They are great assets which the world must harness and use. Educators must create strategies to solve the shortcomings which they have. Of course time is the greatest teacher and Millennials will eventually either conform to the standards … or more likely create their own!

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