With a turn of a tassel, the latest crop of Gen Z students soon will be high school graduates.   

For those thinking about going on to get some type of credential or degree, institutions need to figure out how to deliver. These students are graduating as public trust in higher education is low, especially for young people. It’s something that’s been on leaders’ radars, including that of Cuyahoga Community College President Michael Baston.

“We’ve got to be able to talk to this generation about how they have options and how we can come alongside them with education to support the entrepreneurial dreams of so many of those young people who are deciding not to come to college, not even to finish high school in some cases,” Baston told Signal Cleveland in December 2022

A recent local event aimed to show the class of 2023 some of those options. PartnerUp, an initiative supported by PNC Bank, held a networking fair at Cuyahoga Community College earlier this month. Nearly 80 students from the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, East Cleveland and Warrensville Heights schools attended. 

PartnerUp offers students who are looking for an alternative to college chances to connect with nearly a dozen employers. The list includes places such as Giant Eagle, the Cleveland Clinic and Swagelok. 

These positions all offer some type of additional educational opportunities, according to PNC officials. They said it also helps boost Cleveland’s future workforce by getting students involved in what they’ve identified as “good-paying, high-growth industries.” Students’ interviews with companies are guaranteed through the program, but placement is not. 

Several students who attended the April event stressed to Signal that they are seeking flexibility for the next chapter. Here are their stories. 

Right to the workforce

Credit: Amy Morona

Growing up, Mathew Bonner’s favorite video game was called Construction Simulator. It lets players drive trucks and construct buildings. Now, the 18-year-old Ginn Academy student is considering doing that in real life. 

It’s his Plan A. He’s “really into construction,” he said, adding that he’s eyeing apprenticeship opportunities in cement masonry and heavy highway construction. He came to the PartnerUp event to learn about a potential Plan B. 

“Once I found out about what those jobs can help me do out of my life, it kind of moved me away from college and start going towards the workforce,” he said. 

There’s still time to decide before his June graduation, he said, but he wants to make his choice after his senior prom rolls around next month. 

‘Learn a little about a lot’

Anthony Eaton wants to “learn a little bit about a lot,” he said. 

Credit: Amy Morona

That’s exciting for the 17-year-old. He’s weighing what his options are for when he graduates Cleveland Early College High School at the John Hay campus later this year. He may study early child development. But he said working in manufacturing might be “dope,” too. 

“One of my biggest things when I was looking for stuff is like, ‘I don’t know if this is the right thing for me,’” he said. “But then again, I can make it right for me at any point, so if it’s not, then there are also multiple opportunities I can go and see if something else is right for me.”

He’s already taking some college classes at Cuyahoga Community College. The plan is to continue there to work towards his associate’s degree while he’s working a part-time job. Maybe he’ll get another job, too. He’ll see where life takes him after all of that, he said.  

Carving her own path

Credit: Amy Morona

There are lots of nurses in Armia Jackson’s life. But that’s not the path for her, the 18-year-old said. It left her at a bit of a loss of what to do after she’s done at John Marshall High School.

“I just thought, ‘Well, I don’t want to go to school for a long time after I graduate high school, I don’t want to have to spend all my time at school, I don’t want to be a nurse, I don’t want to run my own business,’” she said.

Jackson always thought she didn’t want to go to college, but she said people stayed in her ear: “You should go!” “You’re going to need something to do after high school.”  

She listened. Earlier this year she made a post-grad plan to enroll in a sonography tech program at Tri-C. She’ll be working during that time, too. 

“I didn’t want to go to work, get comfortable, and then fight myself to try to go back to school,” she said about the decision to go now. 

Building the future

Credit: Amy Morona

Ysamere Coaston’s bound for North Carolina. After she graduates from Early College High School at John Hay, she’ll be enrolling at Greensboro College. The decision came pretty easily for her, she said. 

“My expectation was either I go to college or I just work, and I didn’t want to just be working,” the 19-year-old said. “I wanted to build something for myself.” 

Those who have a four-year degree report higher median lifetime earnings than those who don’t. But taking on student loan debt scares her. 

She works at a Starbucks now and is eyeing new opportunities for when she’s at college. Remote jobs, like the one at PNC Bank she learned about at the PartnerUp event, seem appealing. Such a job would give her more time to study – more time to build. 

Keeping options open

Credit: Amy Morona

Brittney Shelley doesn’t know what comes next.  

“I have thought about going to college, but then I also thought about paying for college, and I was like, ‘eh,’” the student at Shaw High School in East Cleveland said.  

That doesn’t mean she hasn’t thought about it, though. It feels as though she has been thinking about what she wants to do for the rest of her life for all of her 18 years. The list used to include being a doctor or teacher, but not anymore. 

She has a lot of side hustles. Her cheesecakes are so good, she said, people pay her to bake for them. She used to have a clothing line. She thought about opening a hair salon with a friend. 

“I switch around a lot,” she said. “That’s why I don’t know what I want to do!”

She is currently eyeing training programs at local hospitals. Sleep technology programs intrigue her. She did a sleep study once and thought the job seemed cool after talking to the technician. Plus, she’s already a night owl. Maybe that could be the move.

Amy Morona covers higher education for Signal Cleveland, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for Signal Cleveland in partnership with Open Campus.