College Bound? How 7 high school seniors are deciding what to do with their lives

High school seniors face major decisions in their last year of high school. What influences their thinking?

For area high school students, education and career path decisions look different than even five years ago.

College isn’t considered the default best choice, as many Ohio high schools encourage finding the best path for the student, whether that’s trade school, a four-year or two-year degree or a military career.

Nationally, about 38% of people over 25 had at least a bachelor’s degree in 2021, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In Ohio, that percentage is smaller, at about 29%.

There are clear advantages to a college degree. Median wages for a college graduate are significantly higher than for those without — $32.08 for bachelors or higher vs. $18.93 for some college and $17.18 for high school degree, according to a Policy Matters Ohio report released in September.

But that’s costly. Average sticker cost of tuition for in-state, first-year college students this fall semester at Ohio public universities was $12,104, according to a Dayton Daily News analysis of Ohio Department of Higher Education data. That’s up from $9,722 in the 2014-2015 school year.

The Institute for College Access and Success said on average in 2019-2020, Ohio student loan borrowers had about $30,605 in student loans when they graduated, and 59% of graduates had student loan debt.

The Dayton Daily News interviewed seven high school students about their career and education goals, conversations that underlined the variety of motivations and goals these students have heading into their adulthood.

Four-year degree

Alishan Bakhriyev

Bakhriyev, the son of immigrant Russians who didn’t get to finish high school and a senior at Dayton Early College Academy, has already been accepted into Ohio State University’s Young Scholars program, which helps first-generation college students in nine urban districts afford and graduate from college.

He said it’s an expectation for him and his brother to earn at least a bachelor’s degree in higher education.

“College is where I’m going,” he said. “I have to go to college.”

Simply attending college isn’t enough, either. Bakhriyev said he feels he needs to take advantage by getting good internships and making connections, so future employers see his experience beyond a degree.

That experience is also important to solidify his choice of careers, Bakhriyev said. That’s something he tells future students to do, as well.

“Do something you want to do for the rest of your life,” he said.

Kyla Ward

Ward, a senior at Northmont High School, plans on going to college.

“I think for my personality type, having that goal in mind, and just being able to just go for it has helped me,” said Ward, who has been class president all four years of high school.

As of early November, she had been accepted into several colleges, including Bowling Green State University and the University of Dayton. She’ll make a final decision after she learns the details of her financial aid in the spring.

Ward wants to pursue business administration, which would likely require a master’s degree. Her family has money saved for her to attend college, but she wants to use that money to get a master’s degree instead of using it on her undergraduate degree, so she’s seeking as much scholarship money as possible, up to full cost. She wants to avoid student loans.

For her, college is an invaluable experience to make the connections she needs to succeed. It will also allow her to explore several possible careers.

For Black women like Ward, college can help raise wages. Black women have historically made less than their white counterparts, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Black women with a college degree statistically still make less than white women with a college degree, according to a 2017 analysis from the Federal Reserve.

Two year-degree

Bria Wilder

Wilder, a DECA senior, hopes to pursue a career in law. For a long time, Wilder thought she wanted to be a lawyer. But when she found out about what a paralegal does, she said she gravitated towards that career.

“I just feel like, once I started reading about what a paralegal does, it just seemed more like Bria to me,” Wilder said.

Wilder is an example of a student who seeks further education to pursue a certain career goal but has chosen a two-year degree because that fits best. But she said the cost is also a factor in picking the two-year degree.

“I don’t want to graduate from college and then I have all these student loans,” she said.

The percentage of people who have an associate degree in the U.S. is rising, from 9.5% in 2011 to 10.5% in 2021, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Getting an associates degree is still less popular than getting a bachelor’s degree, but the state has been pushing certificates and shorter community college programs as a way to get people into skilled jobs.

Brooklyn Hinely

Hinely, a senior at Fairmont High School, plans to go through an 18-month paramedic course at Sinclair Community College after graduating with her firefighting course completed at the same time she finishes high school.

Hinely said she knew she wanted to go into firefighting at a young age. Several members of her family are firefighters, and after hearing their stories, it seemed like a good fit for her, too.

At one point, she considered going to college and getting a degree in sociology or criminal justice. But once she decided on firefighting, getting a degree didn’t matter as much as getting the correct license in Ohio.

“(In) firefighting, it’s not the money that pays off,” she said. “It’s more of the community you build and the family you build and that’s what makes the money worth it, is finding that place.”


Chris Gwynne

Gwynne, a Northmont senior, already knows he wants to be a trucker. His cousin and uncle work in the industry and make good money, which Gwynne said was attractive to him.

“Most of your time is on the road and delivering that stuff. That’s the only downside of it,” Gwynne said. “I actually know that they make good money and that’s why I like it.”

He considered HVAC training, truck driving and plumbing, but trucking stood out to him because of the people in his family.

While college was considered, he said he ultimately didn’t want the cost and didn’t want to go to school for the extra four years.

“I’m not really a school person but I am willing to go to school for trade school because it’s not as long as college,” Gwynne said.

Ryan Haskins, training coordinator of the Local Pipefitters 162, a plumbing and HVAC union that accepts and trains people on the job through apprenticeships, said he has seen an increase in the last 18 months in students who are interested in that work.

Pay is a big factor in recruitment, he said. Haskins said some people, especially managers, are making up to $128,000 per year working in plumbing and HVAC on job sites, and the union is trying to recruit people because of an expected need for workers in constructing new Honda and Intel plants in central and southwest Ohio.

Apprentices also get paid while working. Haskins said the starting pay for the Local 162 is more than $30 an hour with benefits.

Construction workers, truck drivers, plumbers and electricians are all on Ohio’s Top Job list, which is put together by Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s Office of Workforce Transformation and lists careers that pay relatively well and in which the state expects to see more demand.

Marcellus Whitfield

Whitfield, a DECA senior, is choosing between trade school to become a mechanic and going to college to become an engineer. He said he may end up going to college first, then to trade school, or the other way around.

Whitfield said the main point in his decision is his happiness. The work and the money would make him happy as an engineer, he said, but working on cars is something he loves.

“I feel like I will enjoy myself more, if I just end up being a mechanic. Either way, I’ll be happy with what I’m doing,” he said.


Troi Smith

Smith, a senior at Northmont High School, has already enlisted in the Army, but he can’t be deployed until after he graduates from high school.

Smith said he’s interested in serving in Syria due to his family’s influence.

“It’s a place that my cousin, who was also serving in the Army, ended up being deployed at and he talks about how his experience was and how he enjoyed it,” Smith said.

The military was something he was interested in for a long time, Smith said. He investigated enlisting in the Marines before ultimately deciding on the Army.

Smith said he signed a six-year contract and will consider what he wants to do after that contract ends. He’s considering going into welding or another trade, or attending college to be a mechanical engineer, and he’s hoping he can use GI Bill money to pay for his school.

Military members who have been deployed for at least 90 days can be eligible for the GI Bill, which pays for tuition at a university, college or trade school using federal funding.

According to the U.S. Army website, depending on rank and how long the person has served, the minimum a private with less than two years of service would earn falls between $20,340 a year and $39,531 a year.

Under Ohio law, veterans get a preference in many jobs, including many of the skilled trade jobs as well as firefighting and police positions.

“The military is something that I’ve wanted to do since I was 10,” Smith said. “I’ve been talking about it a while. The second I was 17, I went down to the recruiter’s office and signed up with it.”

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