As one high school class begins to prepare to don their graduation tassels and gowns and take their next steps into the world, another prepares for their own senior year—and with it comes the pressure to find the path they will take beyond their childhood experiences. For some, the path will lead to the gates of a college or university, but not for everyone. Having lived through the most “unprecedented” of times, teens and their families are increasingly asking themselves if going straight to college is the best and only way to success.
And for many, it’s not. According to a multi-year survey of 1,000 high school students from low-income, first-generation, communities of color conducted by ECMC Group and Vice Media, now more than ever, Gen Z teens and young adults are deciding that college is not the only path. In fact, only 45% of the surveyed teens believe that college is necessary. Although 83% feel pressure to choose a four-year university education as a next step, nearly 60% feel that they don’t need that degree to be successful. And about 91% of those students feel their high school education has not properly prepared them to decide on next steps.
In a world where they’re facing increasing inflation and astronomical costs to obtain a higher education, it makes sense that recent graduates are pursuing alternate options. According to a 2022 survey of teens by EdChoice, about half of graduating teens plan to pursue a four-year degree—a nearly 8% decrease from 2021. Teens cite factors such as rising costs, mental health, and other paths to self-discovery as the major reasons they’re looking at other options. And about half of parents agree that kids today need other options besides a four-year university education.
Parents spoke to a handful of students who have chosen to do things their own way—whether that means setting college aside for the moment, taking a detour, or finding their path to a university diploma when their parents did not.
Emerging from the Shadow of COVID—And Following A Dream
Blessing Hightower, 20, New York City
Blessing Hightower believes the mantra that what doesn’t kill her makes her stronger—and she is pretty strong. The 20-year-old experienced homelessness with her family and graduated from high school in the midst of the COVID pandemic in 2020, and for a while, she says, she lost her way while she struggled with her personal issues.
“But I’m back, don’t worry!” she says cheerfully. With the help of her mentor from Big Brothers Big Sisters of New York City, who noticed Blessing lit up any time she talked about fashion, the New Yorker landed a job working at clothing retailer Express, where she was recently promoted to store manager. Even more exciting: with her work experience as a foundation, Blessing will begin studying fashion design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City this fall.
Through her experience with BBBS NYC and Express, Blessing has had the chance to work with Queer Eye’s Tan France and to see how a fashion shoot works along with how everyday customers shop for clothes. “I know what a customer wants now,” she says. “I have experience knowing what people like and don’t like and what fits on different kinds of bodies.”
Because her path has not always been linear and she has had to overcome challenges, Blessing said she hopes parents will find hope in her story. “ I know parents do the best they can to guide their kids, but remember that you’ve been your kids’ age, but they haven’t been yours,” she says. “They need your support. They’re going to figure it out. Our twenties are meant for us to mess up and make mistakes.”
Blessing said her experiences will make her a better fashion designer. “If I had gone straight to FIT from high school, I would have based everything off of my own personal aesthetic and style,” she notes. “People might have loved it or not, but my style is pretty bold. Everybody loves art to admire and look at, but they don’t always want to take it home. I want people to take my art home and incorporate it into their style, show it off, be proud, feel beautiful, strong, and confident.”
A Childhood Obsession Becomes a Dream Job
Robert Dorman, 19, Longwood, Florida
It’s not uncommon for toddlers and preschoolers to become obsessed with trains, cars, and trucks— but Robert Dorman, 19, never outgrew a love for things that go zoom. The Central Florida native has been a regular at the NASCAR track in nearby Daytona Beach since he was a little boy, and even had a car-themed bar mitzvah.
After he graduated from high school in 2022, Robert decided to start earning his A.A. degree at the local state community college with the dream of a career in the auto racing industry.
But not long after he started taking general education classes last summer, a friend working on a racing team for South Carolina-based JD Motorsports texted Robert and told him his team needed some help at a race in Daytona in August. Robert showed up ready to work, and his friend taught him how to do his job, performing the specialized maintenance on the cars’ tires.
Months later, Robert was watching races as a fan at Daytona’s Speedweeks event when he was pulled on the spot by the JD Motorsports team manager to help the team again. After the day was done, Robert said team owner Johnny Davis approached him and asked, “So you’re Robert? I’ll hire you. When can you start?”
Now, Robert—who's still too young to rent a car by himself—flies across the country on the team’s dime to work at races. “From the minute we get to the track to the minute we leave, nothing happens on the tires that doesn’t go through me,” he explains. “The only thing I physically cannot do is put them on the car and take them off, because I can’t go over the pit wall because I don’t have a firesuit. Everything else is my job.”
Because of the requirements of his high school’s academic program, Robert was only able to take a one-semester automotive shop class before he graduated, but that class proved to be very valuable. “I still remember everything my teacher taught me because, ironically, I still use most of what I learned in that one class,” says Robert. “He showed me how to cut a fender apart, patch it back together, repaint it. The class material is still relevant to me three or four years later.”
Robert’s decision to discontinue his studies for the time being was hard for his mom to accept at first, and he said that anyone who faces a similar choice to his needs to know “there’s still going be a few moments when you ask yourself, ‘Will I regret not going to school for this job?’”
But ultimately, he feels confident in his choice. “You can always go back to school. You can’t always start your career for the first time again,” he says. “Even if this opportunity doesn’t last long, I have now made relationships and made it far enough that working for this team won’t be my only option."
Robert says he still believes college could be valuable for him, but for now, he has places to go. “Everyone my mom’s age seems to think I need a college diploma, but I don’t think it’s as important as it used to be. Maybe someday.”
A First-Generation College Student Forges Her Own Path—While Leading the Way for Others
Natalie Dixon, 21, Orlando, Florida
As a senior at a large public high school in an affluent suburb of Orlando, Florida, Natalie Dixon was surrounded by friends who seemed to know exactly how to navigate the college application process and exactly where it would lead them. She was afraid at first, she says, to raise her hand and admit that she did not.
Natalie’s parents did not go to college themselves, so they didn’t know how to guide her. “I don’t want to say I felt shame, but I definitely felt a lot of stress about it,” she says. “I felt embarrassed that I had to reach out to someone on my own.”
Eventually, her parents nudged Natalie to seek out direction from her school’s college counselor, and even though she graduated mid-pandemic in May 2020, Natalie was able to attend just one semester of community college before transferring to the University of Central Florida in January of 2021, where she is currently majoring in hospitality management.
However, transitioning to campus presented its own challenge for Natalie as a first gen student. “Moving into UCF’s dorms was a culture shock for me,” she says. “I wasn’t used to not having my parents there, and I definitely felt out of place, especially when it came to my roommates, whose parents had gone to college and were doctors and lawyers. My roommates were very different from me, and it made me nervous about blending in.”
Natalie’s strategy for integrating herself into the large public state university campus was to join larger student organizations. “That way, I didn’t stick out as much if I was a little bit different or came from a different background," she says. "No one would care or notice if I was a first generation college student.”
But now, at 21, Natalie is a leader on campus, serving on executive boards for student organizations and leading freshman orientation groups while working at Universal Studios when she isn’t in class. She’s proud to have become the role model she needed when she first came to the university.
“I really like being different than everyone else now, because I feel like I add something to the table, and I know that for me, seeing people who look like me in spaces makes me feel better about who I am," she says. "Now, being on executive boards as a first generation student who is Mexican and moved around so much, I can be that person for other people instead of blending in. I don’t want to blend in anymore.”
A Gap Year Offers the Chance to Learn About the World
Jack Scheetz, 18, Bethesda, MD
When Jack Scheetz graduated from Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland, in 2022, he already knew he wanted to take a year off from school. Jack asked for a deferral from Denison University, where he plans to begin his studies later this fall, so he could take a gap year.
While gap years are less common in the United States, they are a regular thing in Denmark, where Jack’s mom, Kikke Riedel, was born and raised. In fact, it was her own gap year that led Riedel to move to the United States as an adult. Her experience and support gave Jack confidence when making the decision to try something different than what his friends were doing.
This fall, Jack lived and attended classes at a Danish hojskole, which translates to “folk high school” in English. A hojskole is a kind of boarding school where students can spend four to six months studying a specific subject for fun or enrichment without worrying about grades or homework. The concept began in the mid-1800s, and folk high schools are common in Nordic countries, with more than 70 in Denmark alone. Though they take students of all ages, Jack said he sensed the majority of students were around his age and transitioning between the Danish equivalent of high school and university like he is.
Different folk high schools specialize in different subjects, and Jack chose one that was founded in the 1970s during the Cold War with a mission to build international understanding. The classes are taught in English and focus on sustainability, environmentalism, and cultural understanding—ideas he might be able to apply later in his studies as an intended political science or sociology major.
After his semester at the folk high school, Jack and a friend went on a trip to Nepal coordinated by the school and its alumni. They stayed both in Kathmandu and with a host family in a Himalayan village, sightseeing and volunteering in community projects, for weeks.
Jack says he feels the folk high school experience was a good antidote to the stress of American high school for him and will prepare him for what is to come in college. “It is a good mix of structure and free time,” he says. “It helped me get used to living where I am studying and with a set schedule, but it also gave me a chance to try new things and be my own person. This experience will make me a more effective and efficient student.”
He also appreciates the global perspective his gap year has given him. “The further out of your comfort zone you go, the more value there is for you, and the more value you can take back to your college campus,” he says. “A gap year can give you a whole other year of unique experiences before you go into college, and you never know when that might be helpful. It has made me a more interesting person.”
A College Tour Takes a High School Senior on a Path He Never Expected
Lucian DelValle, 18, Glassboro, NJ
High school senior Lucian DelValle was planning on going to a university in Massachusetts after graduation this June—that is, until he toured a community college near his home in Glassboro, New Jersey, and found a path he never knew existed before.
On a visit to Salem Community College in Carneys Point, New Jersey, the 18-year-old, who participated in musical theater and choir in high school, discovered the college’s renowned Scientific Glass Technology major —the only program of its kind in the U.S.—that teaches students how to create by hand the glass instruments necessary in scientific laboratories all over the world.
Growing up, Lucian’s family encouraged him to pursue a career in the medical field for the potential income and job security. He had never thought about working with glass before, and like many others, didn’t even know scientific glass technology was a degree. But he “immediately fell in love,” he says, with the idea once he learned about the program. He’ll be the only one from his high school and one of the only students from the state of New Jersey attending the specific program, which only enrolls about 30 students per year and draws applicants from around the world.
Jumping into something completely different might be a little intimidating, but Lucian is ready for the challenge. His message to other teens facing a similar choice is to “embrace the fact that you’re different," he says. "You don’t have to get into an Ivy or a big university to feel validated by your peers."
“If you’re doing something that no one else is doing, if anything, it makes you cooler,” says Lucian, who is one of the the BBBSA 2022 Bigs and Littles of the Year, and participated in the mentorship as a Little through the program in BBBS Atlantic & Cape May Counties. “You’re doing something you care about and you’re passionate about, and your friends will want to learn about what you’re doing. Everyone wants to be a big science person, a big coding person, a teacher, a doctor. But there are other careers out there that you don’t even know about until you find it.”