Recent Santa Fe Prep graduate Eliza Hillenkamp thought she wanted to go straight to college after completing high school. But then she just didn’t feel ready to go.

“There was a lot of pressure there for good grades, pressure from school and pressure from myself. … I was burnt out mentally,” she said. “I focused so much on school I didn’t really focus on myself.”

Many teens feel similarly — and many of those who feel obligated to go to college are simply unaware of alternative paths.

“I don’t really know about any other programs or paths other than the military,” said Derek Roybal, a senior at St. Michael’s High School, noting that college was “pushed by my family and school.”

This is common not only for youth, but across multiple generations.

For Melodie Van Hoose, who graduated high school over 20 years ago, “That was just the expectation that you go, and so I went through the motions and I applied to a lot of places that I didn’t go [to].”

It was the cultural norm, she said, with pressure coming from not only family and school, but from within. To her, going to college felt like something she had to do.

“I think everyone had that pressure because they don’t really give you another option,” agreed high school senior Ixchel Marquez.

To many, college seems like the only way to move forward in life — and an expensive option at that. Between 1989 and 2016, the average cost of attending a four-year degree doubled by 2.6 percent, while the average annual growth in wages in the same time frame only grew 0.3 percent, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. For many, with college opportunities comes college debt.

“I know people in their 50s who are still paying off their college debt. It’s sad to work for your whole life paying for only four years. It almost feels like it’s not worth it,” said Hillenkamp.

But there are alternative paths for an education following high school that don’t necessarily involve college. Taking a gap year — in which you can travel, work for a year, take a community college class or two, or just do nothing — is one option. It could even increase your maturity level and better prepare you for college. A recent national study of colleges said that students who took a gap year tested higher in most aspects of their college and adult life: “Examinees were shown to have higher grade point averages, and have more positive college and workplace experiences.”

A 2017 study by the nonprofit American Gap Association said 30,000 to 40,000 high school students were considering taking at least a semester off before attending college. That report also said those students do very well once they do attend college.

Hillenkamp said she plans to take a gap year to “travel and get real-life experience. I think more people should take a gap year.”

Van Hoose, who now works as a teen counselor and who took a gap year some 20 years ago, said she sees it now as a “mixed bag.”

“My life worked out, and that’s awesome, and I have a unique path so I’m not afraid of doing things out of the norm,” she said. “I’m glad for the path I took.”

Van Hoose said her gap year encouraged her to explore both her own place in the world and the world itself.

“I basically went to the West Coast and I was an environmental activist, and that really woke me up,” she said.

Another post-high school option is to go directly to work, something that about 36 percent of recent high school graduates are doing, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“I was always told that if I don’t do good in school I’ll end up at McDonald’s,” said Roybal, a senior at St. Michael’s High School.

Most students have heard something like that at one point or another, but one can make a living at McDonald’s by working their way up to a managerial position. According to, entry-level McDonald’s managers earn an average salary of $39,000 and can make much more, not including benefits.

And then there is the choice of serving your country by joining a branch of the military. Doing so involves a multiyear commitment, a lot of discipline and the possibility of being deployed far away or sent into battle. But the military provides one’s salary, room and board, health care and educational benefits that can pay off much the same way that a four-year college degree might (minus the student debt). Still, even those who have left high school to join the military caution that it is not for everyone.

“And it’s OK if it’s not for you,” said Tom Marquell in a 2016 online story titled “The Military or College? Insight from a Veteran.” “The great thing about our all-volunteer armed forces is that everyone in it has a reason. Make sure you’re enlisting for the right one.” His piece, posted at, lays out many of the pros and cons of joining the military.

There are many career paths that don’t require a college degree for students to consider. Hillenkamp said that if you are not sure what to do, “Don’t go to college unless you really want it. It costs so much, and you have to really want it to be worth it.

“Live your life, break the system. … Think for yourself.”

Seneca Johnson will be a senior this year at Santa Fe Indian School. Contact her at

Luke Beingessner-Chavez is a freshman at Santa Fe High School. Contact him at