North­eastern Pres­i­dent Joseph E. Aoun said Tuesday morning that the university’s new national survey of Gen­er­a­tion Z sheds light on key areas where higher edu­ca­tion must adapt to meet the needs of its customers—students—both now and in the future.

The survey results indi­cated that Gen­er­a­tion Z is highly self-​​directed, demon­strated by a strong desire to work for them­selves, study entre­pre­neur­ship, and design their own pro­grams of study in college.

What [Gen­er­a­tion Z] is telling us is that they want to shape their own journey,” Aoun said at a higher edu­ca­tion summit in Wash­ington, D.C., held in con­junc­tion with the release of the survey find­ings. “We need to move from a teacher-​​centered cur­riculum to a learner-​​centered curriculum.”

North­eastern and Mar­ket­place from Amer­ican Public Media orga­nized the summit, which fea­tured a panel dis­cus­sion focusing on this next gen­er­a­tion of stu­dents, workers, and inno­va­tors. Their con­ver­sa­tion was illu­mi­nated by Northeastern’s new national poll of more than 1,000 teenagers (16 to 19 years old) who weighed in with their views of today’s most pressing issues of per­sonal and soci­etal impor­tance, including their col­lege plans, future finan­cial out­look, and tech­nology preferences.

Kai Ryssdal, host of Mar­ket­place, mod­er­ated the dis­cus­sion, which was titled “Inno­va­tion Imper­a­tive: Meet Gen­er­a­tion Z” and held at the New­seum. Joining Aoun on the panel were Amy Scott, edu­ca­tion cor­re­spon­dent for Mar­ket­place; Bridget Terry Long, the Saris Pro­fessor of Edu­ca­tion and Eco­nomics at the Har­vard Grad­uate School of Edu­ca­tion; and Keyaun Hey­darian, a 17-​​year-​​old high school senior. Mar­ket­place also reported on the new national survey.

Tuesday’s summit was the fourth in Northeastern’s Inno­va­tion Imper­a­tive thought-​​leadership series on the future of higher edu­ca­tion and its rela­tion­ship to the global economy. Pre­vious sum­mits have focused on the opin­ions of Amer­ican adults, hiring-​​decision makers, and C-​​suite exec­u­tives.

Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun said Tuesday morning that the university’s new national survey of Generation Z sheds light on key areas where higher education must adapt to meet the needs of its customers—students—both now and in the future. Charles Votaw Photography.

North­eastern Pres­i­dent Joseph E. Aoun said Tuesday morning that the university’s new national survey of Gen­er­a­tion Z sheds light on key areas where higher edu­ca­tion must adapt to meet the needs of its customers—students—both now and in the future. Charles Votaw Photography.

Among the new poll’s find­ings was that the majority (81 per­cent) believes obtaining a col­lege degree is impor­tant to having a suc­cessful career. For her part, Scott noted that she encoun­tered a sim­ilar sen­ti­ment among stu­dents she inter­viewed for a forth­coming doc­u­men­tary, Oyler, about a Cincin­nati public school fighting poverty in its urban Appalachian neigh­bor­hood. Scott, who pro­duced and directed the doc­u­men­tary in asso­ci­a­tion with Mar­ket­place, said stu­dents there had a “prag­matic approach to col­lege,” viewing it as the best path to a good-​​paying job. She added that this school and many others are exam­ining whether alter­na­tive paths, such as appren­tice­ships and tech­nical pro­grams, are a better fit for some students.

Ryssdal fol­lowed up on this point by asking Aoun whether North­eastern offers a product or an oppor­tu­nity. Aoun responded by saying that North­eastern offers an oppor­tu­nity, noting that “The shelf life for a product is very short.” He added that this oppor­tu­nity includes entre­pre­neur­ship, which pro­vides stu­dents with valu­able expe­ri­ences to not only suc­ceed but also to learn how to fail, pick them­selves up, and try again.

Long, an econ­o­mist who spe­cial­izes in studying edu­ca­tion with a par­tic­ular focus on the high school to col­lege tran­si­tion, said it can be chal­lenging to con­vince stu­dents that failure is OK in a highly com­pet­i­tive envi­ron­ment with a “winner-​​take-​​all” mentality.

It’s scary to fail,” Long said, but later echoed Aoun by noting that col­lege offers a safe space for stu­dents to learn and grow their entre­pre­neurial spirit.

Hey­darian explained how his entre­pre­neurial spirit, which he inher­ited from his uncle, led him to create Col​legeRole​Model​.com. The web­site helps high school stu­dents and col­lege hope­fuls find role models who then show them around their dream schools, thus giving them unique per­spec­tives only stu­dents can provide.

My dri­ving force was that I noticed a defect in the col­lege admis­sions process,” he said, explaining that campus tours aren’t always par­tic­u­larly insightful. “I’ve always wanted to be an entre­pre­neur, to do things on my own.”

The new survey also indi­cated that Gen­er­a­tion Z over­whelm­ingly embraces the tra­di­tional higher edu­ca­tion frame­work but also wor­ries about the cost of col­lege and taking on any kind of stu­dent loan debt—a fear that may have incu­bated in the Great Reces­sion. What’s more, 64 per­cent said they are con­cerned about being able to get a job.

With this in mind, the panel dis­cus­sion veered toward the value of higher edu­ca­tion. Aoun noted that col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties must mea­sure their value. For too long, he said, higher edu­ca­tion has focused on input mea­sures (appli­ca­tion num­bers, incoming class met­rics) rather than output mea­sures (stu­dents readi­ness for life and the work­force). Northeastern’s edu­ca­tion model empha­sizes expe­ri­en­tial learning, he said, noting that stu­dents gain real world expe­ri­ence through the university’s sig­na­ture co-​​op program.

We decided that there is no dichotomy between learning to live and learning to earn a living. That’s a value,” he said, adding that stu­dents gain a global per­spec­tive through co-​​op. North­eastern had more than 9,800 co-​​op place­ments in 2013–2014 and has placed stu­dents in expe­ri­en­tial learning oppor­tu­ni­ties in 128 coun­tries since 2006.

The panel fields questions from the audience.Charles Votaw Photography.

The panel fields and dis­cusses ques­tions from the audi­ence. Charles Votaw Photography.

During the Q-​​and-​​A fol­lowing the panel dis­cus­sion, one audi­ence member asked Hey­darian if his gen­er­a­tion feels antipathy or hos­tility toward big busi­ness. The ques­tion was asked in light of the survey’s find­ings that 42 per­cent expect to work for them­selves and 64 per­cent indi­cated that big cor­po­ra­tions and banks con­trol too much in Amer­ican society.

They’ve def­i­nitely put things in per­spec­tive, that you should be wary of who you work for and be aware of what’s hap­pening.” Hey­darian said. He also called atten­tion to the Occupy Wall Street move­ment, noting that some of his peers have been swayed from pur­suing careers in finance.

Another ques­tion came from a busi­nessman who said that many of his col­leagues haven’t been over­whelm­ingly impressed with their hires from Gen­er­a­tion Y (the Mil­len­nials) and asked if Gen­er­a­tion Z would be different.

I would sus­pect yes,” Long answered, “because it’s very dif­ferent to grow up in a boom, when you think everything’s handed out for free, versus growing up in a reces­sion where people are really strug­gling and having to be the best just to keep their jobs.”

Watch the full panel discussion: