Cleveland, Ohio (WJW) – For decades, the expected next step for high school graduates has been a college campus, but that may be changing.

“My thoughts were never to go to college…never wanted to go to college,” said 18-year-old Rikya Lucas, who graduated from Cleveland’s Villa Angela-Saint Joseph High School in May.

Lucas says she was inspired by shows like “Selling Tampa” on Netflix and is now fulfilling her dream of obtaining her real estate license.

“Those are absolutely amazing to watch. Clearly, real estate, it’s not as easy as that, but it definitely gives you a glimpse of what I could possibly do with real estate,” said Lucas.

She isn’t alone.

This summer, the Hechinger Report outlined the steady drop nationwide in the percentage of high school grads enrolling in college the fall after their senior year. In 2016, 70% of high schoolers enrolled in a two or four-year college the following fall. By 2020, that percentage was down to 63%.

The latest data from The Thomas B. Fordham Institute shows just 53 percent of Ohio’s Class of 2018 went on to enroll in a two or four-year college program.

Increasingly, students have become skeptical of what a degree truly offers and whether it’s worth their money or time.

“If you go into, I don’t know, like a random major just because you don’t know what you want to be…and yet, you’re just wasting more time. You know, like, you could be doing exactly what you want to do, just like I am right out of high school,” said 2022 graduate Alina Younkin.

Younkin fell in love with Masonry while attending Lorain County JVS.

After graduating, she started working as a paid apprentice with the Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers Ohio Local 5. Both she and Lucas say the potential of having student loan debt impacted their post-high school plans.

“My mom telling me how hard it was, and how hard it still is, trying to still pay it off and having to pay the house and car insurance,” said Younkin.

“I’m talking 50,000. And if you’re going to an HBCU, it could go up to $200,000 or $100,000 in debt, and you’re straight on the college,” said Lucas. “People have to get an apartment, start living for themselves, but you have this ‘Oh, I have college debt’ on my mind. Now, I’m stressed out.”

According to Ohio Department of Higher Education Chancellor Randy Gardner, Ohio students leave millions of dollars on the table by not applying for aid. 

“Just completing the FAFSA, the Federal FAFSA form. It’s very difficult for students to know whether it’s affordable or not, if they don’t complete it,” said Gardner.

The chancellor also says there are less students graduating from Ohio high schools, and therefore eligible to attend college in the state.

It’s a population challenge he expects to likely last through 2031.

For now, his department is focused on giving families more guidance on their options, including trade programs, certificates, and certifications, as well as the actual costs of a degree.

“I think the most important thing for higher education in Ohio, for leaders in Ohio, is not to steer students to a certain outcome, but to give them all the information we can so they can make the best decision for them and their families,” Gardner said.

Data shows a degree does pay off.

Workers with bachelor’s degrees earn about 67 percent more, weekly, than people with only high school diplomas, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Rikya and Alina, who are either obtaining a certification or license, say they’re making the best decision for their lives.

“I basically get a head start in life, like, I don’t have to worry about having to pay off that debt. Like, I’m coming out of high school making really good money. I graduated when I was seventeen. Seventeen. Getting really good paychecks. Working 40-hour weeks,” Younkin said.

“Real estate is huge, real estate is worldwide,” said Lucas. “On top of, you know, it’s what, about what you do with your money, how you handle it. What you put it into…how you make more money with your money.”