Title: Gen Z’s Declining Engagement with WE@RIT, a Women in Engineering Program
Keywords: Gender, Undergraduate
Defining the Problem
Engagement trends among current students have been shifting at institutions of higher education nationally. Beginning in 2016, WE@RIT began experiencing marked changes in current student engagement with its own programming. No-show rates for current student programs began creeping up over 50%, emails were being largely ignored, and a longstanding notable recruitment initiative dependent on first-year student volunteers was forced to change formats from an overnight experience to an evening-only program even as outside demand from high school seniors steadily rose year over year. Concurrently, the no-show rate at current student events prompted program sponsor discontent and strained relations with valued alumni. This shift occurred suddenly and grew ever more pronounced with each year’s incoming class.
Of particular interest was understanding general cohort characteristics of Generation Z (Gen Z), including their views on higher education and volunteerism. Literature suggests that Gen Z, those born approximately between 1997 – 2012 and now accounting for the entirety of traditional aged college students, are above all else highly relational, highly driven, and highly anxious. Additionally, the changeover from the millennial era to that of Gen Z is being felt more acutely than for any previous generational changeover.
Gen Z students place a high priority on interpersonal relationships. In fact, their interpersonal relationships are among their biggest sources of personal happiness, and they have an intense fear of disappointing those closest to them. They are profoundly we-centric, more so than any other generation before them, often looking to social media for reassurance and validation. Gen Z is a pragmatic, anxious and driven cohort that came of age on social media in a post-9/11 world and during a time of a national recession. Now experiencing a global pandemic, they are facing unparalleled financial burdens and logistical challenges to obtain an education. The flexibility to explore and to fail is largely no longer an option for these students who see a college education as a means to get a decent job. The stakes are high for Gen Z, pushing academics above all other things, including programs like WE@RIT.
Considering volunteerism, Gen Z high school students have a large amount of volunteer experiences on their resumes, typically the result of program requirements with mandated community service hours. Though these students intend to continue volunteering once in college, the college volunteerism rates of Gen Z are drastically lagging those of their millennial counterparts, in no small part due to the pressures imposed on them to succeed academically.
Survey Design & Implementation
In the early spring semester of 2020, we constructed and administered a survey instrument to all undergraduate women students within the Kate Gleason College of Engineering (KGCOE). The purpose of the survey was to understand how these undergraduate women students compared to the more general generational findings on Gen Z by better understanding the reasons for their engagement or lack thereof with WE@RIT; to understand the top concerns of the undergraduate women students; to better understand the types of programming these undergraduate women would like to have; and to find out the best ways to communicate with these students going forward.
The survey was sent to a total of 647 women students in KGCOE, using 5 email distribution lists: KGCOE 1st Year Students – Women (81), KGCOE 2nd Year Students– Women (115), KGOCE 3rd Year Students– Women (123), KGCOE 4th Year Students– Women (108), and KGCOE 5th Year Students – Women (226). The survey remained open for two weeks. All respondents who completed the survey were able to claim a token worth $2.50 to be used at Java’s, an on-campus coffee house. A total of 270 students responded to the survey. 257 responses were ultimately included for data analysis after deleting partial responses that only answered demographic questions. The final survey response rate was 39.4%. Of the 257 who fully completed the survey, 55 collected their free token for coffee.
Across all survey sections, the survey results showed that the undergraduate women in KGCOE mirrored national general findings on Gen Z: namely, the drive to succeed academically being paramount, the relational desire to be in community with one another, their we-centric focus on their larger community, as well as the manifestation of rising anxiety in the form of perceived lack of time and concerns about self-care.
The reasons that undergraduate women in KGCOE gave for participating in WE@RIT programs were divided almost evenly among making connections with other women studying engineering, personal or professional growth, and the ability to serve as a positive engineering role model, underscoring the relational, we-centric focus of Gen Z. The most common reasons given by those who have not participated in WE@RIT programming were schedule conflicts and having no time to attend, perhaps pointing to the driven nature and academic focus of Gen Z students.
When asked to rank concerns, the top concern across every year and every engineering major was succeeding academically within an engineering curriculum; the item of least concern across almost every year and major was the environment for women/acceptance of women in KGCOE. This may be evidence of strong engineering identity in the undergraduate women of KGCOE, but certainly underscores the driven nature and linear academic focus being found among Gen Z nationally.
Programmatically, the one-off programs that presently form the backbone of WE@RIT and which formerly met the needs of the millennials, are no longer sufficient in meeting the needs of this new cohort that longs for both physical as well as virtual sustained community building. Additionally, WE@RIT has thus far not collaborated extensively with other diverse groups, nor has it opened programming beyond the community of women in KGCOE, both things respondents valued. As a largely event-driven organization marketed to current women students and lacking ongoing, sustained programs, the survey revealed that WE@RIT’s current offerings are no longer meeting the needs of these students.
Finally, though email remains the preferred method of communication for these students, respondents indicated that social media sites, community networking applications such as Slack, and text/email reminders can be integrated into marketing practices to improve event attendance. Respondents furthermore indicated that knowing that their friends would be attending a program is the number one incentive to attend, again pointing to Gen Z’s relational nature. The presence of food at an event or program lagged 17 percentage points behind knowing their friends would be participating. Leveraging student’s personal networks may prove beneficial in improving engagement rates and decreasing no-show rates.
The undergraduate women of KGCOE share core characteristics of Gen Z college students nationally. Specifically, these students have a near linear focus on academic success, place a strong value on forming and sustaining interpersonal relationships, are concerned about the needs of the greater community, but whose anxieties (especially academic stress) often prevent them from participating fully in the community at large. Programs struggling to engage Gen Z students may benefit from asking several key questions of their offerings. Among them: Is there a clear and compelling relational gain, especially one that can be sustained? Is there a clear and compelling academic or professional gain? Has the student voice been integrated into the planning/implementation? Have student’s personal networks been leveraged for marketing and attendance?
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