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Gen Z is Not Impressed by Alternative Break Programs

Civic Engagement LEAD Initiative
December 20, 2018 Corrinna Corrallo University of Central Florida

A recent drop in overall participation of alternative break programs (AB) nationwide suggests that higher education institutions should further research the root causes. In one survey conducted by Breakaway, participation dropped from 20,207 to 19,107 students in one year, despite an increase in program options from 167 to 195. Attempting to understand the newest generation of traditional college aged students they can be an illuminating experience in the context of planning alternative break programs. Generation Z is dissimilar from their predecessors, the millennials, in many ways. Student affairs professionals would be amiss to use similar approaches to encourage co-curricular participation. College students who are classified as Generation Z (Gen Z) were born from 1995 to 2010, making up the entirety of traditional aged college students around 18 to 24 years of age.

Perhaps the most glaring misalignment between current AB trends and Generation Z preferences is the lack of clear incentive for students to participate in alternative break experiences. Generation Z is highly motivated by career success and achieving financial stability; they're, also, highly competitive and therefore are most likely to do engage in co-curricular activities that get them ahead in their chosen career field. AB experiences focus their experiences on achieving personal growth and promoting awareness of societal issues. Gen Z is not averse to this idea, they believe that these are not mutually exclusive and capitalizing on the practicality of experiences could increase participation. Breakaway reports the 56% of all AB experiences take place during Spring break and 16% during winter break. Many students are choosing short-term study abroad instead of AB emersions. For example, nurses and pre-dental students may travel to developing countries and offer health services while developing their trade. Early childhood education majors pay to experience an international teaching excursion in an exotic location of the world. These programs are in direct competition with AB experiences. Other ideas for incentivization include, offering class credit, a minor or certificate for completing alterative break programs and the preparatory classes of adding a co-curricular transcript. AB leaders may also want to consider offering more experiences during the weekend throughout the semester to decrease competition with other service and learning opportunities during spring/winter break.

The most popular topic for AB relates to the environment and sustainability. This does align with topics that Gen Z also cares about. 58% of Gen Z says the future of the environment is a significant source of stress for them. Alternative break programs might consider partnering with science and engineering programs to fill such experiences if vacancies are an issue. Another item to consider is that students are increasingly channeling their energy into political issues in new and creative ways. While Gen Z wants to change the world, they like to do so by sharing on social media. They like to choose how they experience and engage with an issue they are passionate about and at their own leisure. According to a recent survey, measuring the main stressors of Gen Z at school, gun control and sexual violence were listed as high areas of concern. “About 75% of Gen Z reported mass shootings as a significant source of stress, and 72% said the same about school shootings.” As for sexual violence, 53% of all Gen Zers surveyed reported this topic as a major source of stress compared to 39% of all adults. Although these topics may be a challenge to turn into a AB experience topic, it is important to be aware of what they think are important social issues. 

Another consideration is how to best market AB programs. To be a success, a program must have a seamless and intuitive online presence while having in-person contact at certain key touch points. A robust online presence is not a bonus, rather, an expectation. So, what does this look like in practice? For instance, info sessions and pre-experience training should to be a hybrid of in-person and online requirements. Tools such as online learning management systems can be integrated with a few in-person meetings that serve to build relationships with the experience participants and leaders. Gen Z also prefers learning from video over reading, so this learning method should be integrated whenever practical to market experiences and for informational purposes.  It’s also great for marketing and informational purposes such as risk management. Furthermore, using a one stop shop for applying, payment and gaining information is highly desirable for Gen Zers who prefer to get their information online and with efficiency.

Regarding, the selection process for generation Z, we know that there is an appeal to competition. 31% of all AB experiences using the first come, first serve selection process. Gen Zers want to be chosen by merit, not by chance or attendance. Gen Z also loves personalized experiences. Consider lowering the number of students on each experience for a more individualized approach. Gen Zers have a focus on individuality and do not like working in groups unless they are forced to. Currently, 20% of excursions have 21-40 attendants per experience as reported by Breakaway. Creating more intimate experiences could prove beneficial to retention.

Finally, we examine the price point of AB experiences and the idea of return on investment. There are, no doubt, cheaper ways to serve the community if students have a propensity to do so. For generation Z, if they are paying for an experience, they want to know there is also of some direct and practical benefit involved. With domestic experiences with a drive averaging $350, domestic experiences by air averaging $840, and international at $1700, it is a large financial commitment for most college students. Prices are especially high for the fiscally responsible Generation Z and the prices for AB experiences continue to rise. The true cost of attendance has increased 40% since last academic year alone. To combat the spike in prices, AB programs can partner with businesses for sponsorship to lower the cost. For example, at the University of Central Florida partnered with Spirit Airlines to provide airfare for an alternative break experience to Puerto Rico providing disaster relief. More research needs to be done to solidify where the drop-in participation is specifically stemming from within alternative break programming. However, by examining the habits of the newest generation of college students, AB experiences can certainly become more adaptable to needs of the bulk of our current students.


  • Breakaway. (2018). National Alternative Break Survey. Retrieved from alternativebreaks.org: http://alternativebreaks.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/2018-National-Alternative-Break-Survey.pdf
  • Diaz, A. (2018, October 31). Generation Z reported the most mental health problems, and gun violence is the biggest stressor. Retrieved from CNN Wire.
  • Miller, J. (2018, November/December). 10 Things You Need To Know About Gen Z. HR Magazine, pp. 50-57.
  • Schweiger, D., & Ladwig, C. (June). Reaching and retaining the next generation:. Information Systems Education Journal, 2018.
  • Turner, A. (2015). Generation Z: Technology and social interest. The Journal of Individual Psychology, 103-113.
  • Zorn, R. L. (2017). Coming in 2017: A New Generation of Graduate Students- The Z Generation. Campus Viewpoint, pp. 61-63.