State of Our Nation’s Youth Survey, led by Gregory Wolniak, Reveals Optimism Among Youth

Contrary to common assumptions about “Gen Z” and younger Millennials, a new survey led Gregory Wolniak finds that this generation is conscientious, hard working, career-driven, and dedicated to progressing racial, socioeconomic, and LGBT equality. The survey’s findings were announced this morning at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

Wolniak, director of the Center for Research on Higher Education Outcomes at NYU Steinhardt, was tapped by the Horatio Alger Association to be the principal investigator of the 2016 State of Our Nation’s Youth survey, which looks at the values, goals, and concerns of today’s 14-23 year olds – many of whom will be first-time voters in a national presidential election.

The 2016 survey offers key insights into the attitudes and beliefs of approximately 1,500 high school students and recent high school graduates nationwide.  Many of the same topics Wolniak studied in the 2012 State of Our Nation’s Youth survey remained consistent in the 2016 survey, including politics, academics and educational aspirations, news and media, family and relationships, communication and technology and future outlook on the country. New topics were also introduced, such as career and technical education, parental involvement, stress and depression, and the impact of social media.

The survey found:

Despite the many challenges faced by this generation, young people remain cautiously optimistic about the future and aim to better society as a whole.

  • Social equality is the most important issue for change in the United States. According to high school students and graduates, areas most often identified as needing change in America are equal treatment of all races (35 and 33 percent, respectively) and narrowing the economic gap between rich and poor (34 and 30 percent).
  • Hope and optimism about the country’s future has been on the rise since 2008. In 2016, nearly two-thirds of high school students reported feeling hopeful and optimistic towards the country’s future.
  • Despite optimism for the country’s future and a belief that the 2016 election will have a major impact on it, few trust the government: 7 percent of high school students and 6 percent of college students almost always trust the government to do what is right.

Contrary to what many believe about “Gen Z” and younger Millennials, they have fairly traditional life goals and desires.

  • Success is closely tied to financial stability, helping others and raising a family.
  • Young people today – nearly nine out of 10 students and graduates – attribute success in life to hard work and actions rather than luck.
  • The leading source of pressure among high school students is themselves: 65 percent of students who characterized pressure to get into college as a major problem in their lives indicated that this pressure was self-induced, and 58 percent credited their parents.

Young Americans still see value in higher education, despite real concerns about cost.

  • The pursuit of a college degree remains a nearly universal aspiration among high school students. 90 percent of high school students intend to pursue some type of degree. However, this percentage has decreased from 97 percent in 2012.
  • Progressing to college immediately after high school remains the norm, though other factors play a decisive role. Most students (91 percent) intend to enroll in college immediately after graduation.
  • College costs are cause for concern among the vast majority of high school students.

“Despite – or perhaps because of – the fact that this generation grew up within challenging social and economic circumstances, they are incredibly focused, concerned about their educational investments, hardworking, and don’t take success for granted,” said Wolniak. “They put great pressure on themselves to do well and are determined not only to succeed individually, but also to achieve social justice.  This generation appears to care a great deal about ‘doing well by doing good.’”